The Net Difference

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For the better part of last year, politicos believed that the Republicans would have a whole lot more money to spend on the 2004 election than the Democrats. By October, President George W. Bush had raised $50 million in the third quarter alone, amassing a $130 million war chest by year-end. In a mid-2003 briefing with a Bush insider, "We were told one of the great advantages Bush would have this year would be that he would outspend the Democratic nominee [by] between 3- and 5-to-1," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at University of Virginia.

What Sabato couldn't foresee -- nor could anyone else for that matter -- was the role a groundswell of Net-savvy political activists would have in permanently altering the presidential campaign fund-raising game.

In November 2003, some 300,000 supporters of Democratic candidate Howard Dean clicked "yes" in an online poll, bidding that he opt out of public campaign funding. They told Dean they'd ante up the money he needed to make a run at the Democratic Party nomination. They kept their promise, setting new fund-raising records. Sen. John Kerry took Dean's cue four days later. That was it. Dean catalyzed, for the first time, the power of an online community engaged in politics, and in turn helped to change the face of the presidential election. But setting records for funds raised alone couldn't save Dean from his campaign's weaknesses. However, history will show that he helped launch a different kind of political revolution.

"Bush had $125 million to Gore's $45 million during the run-up to the 2000 conventions. That's how it was supposed to play out this time," explains Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic nomination. "George W. Bush raised $214 million and Kerry raised $182 million. Without the Internet, this election would not have even been competitive." As millions vent their views on blogs, political dialogue has taken on a life of its own on the Web. But it's more than talk, it's wildfire ideology backed by serious money. Organizations such as Move On are a sign that the Internet is likely to be the next frontier for political fund-raising, gathering huge amounts through its online network of politically engaged individuals. Clearly, the Internet is showing the potential to be not just a political juggernaut, but an information and opinion fertilizer whose harvest is cold hard cash.

To better understand the Net's political audience and impact, American Demographics partnered with comScore Survey Research and polled 1,785 Internet users about their consumption of political information across the media spectrum. The survey, fielded in August 2004, paints a picture of plugged-in political information gatherers. Television is the No. 1 source for political news, with 44 percent or more of respondents indicating they fairly often or often use network, cable or local TV as a source for political information. Newspapers, word of mouth, radio and online news sites followed; all were used often or fairly often by at least 29 percent of respondents. Two sources, blogs and chat/forums, fell below 10 percent usage in the fairly often or often category.

But significantly, 11 percent of respondents said they used blogs as a source of political information sometimes, fairly often or often. Blogs, short for Weblogs, are updated frequently and generally include the blog author's opinion, like a personal Op-Ed page. "All you really need is an Internet connection and a computer and you've got a soapbox. You no longer have to have tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of readers to be publishing on the Internet," explains David Sifry, founder and CEO of Technorati, a Web site that tracks blogs. CNN contracted Technorati during both conventions to help the cable network follow what was going on in the blogosphere.

"The blogosphere to me is a very good thing," says Victor Navasky, publisher and editor of The Nation. "There are all these ideas floating around out there and it doesn't cost a lot to get your message out. If you believe truth will ultimately win out over falsehood, it's nice to know there's a way of getting it out there." At the beginning of September, Technorati was tracking well over 3.5 million of these personal Web sites.

"What's going on is that people are writing about what they care about," says Scott Rafer, CEO of Feedster, a RSS search engine that's popular with bloggers. "Sometimes far beyond their expertise, sometimes well within it. There's never some 'let's fill up the real estate of the issue and no more' situation."

Democrats recognized the growing influence of blogs and tried to capitalize on it at their convention at the end of July. Jay Rosen, chair of the journalism department at NYU and author of Pressthink, a blog that deals with the press and often focuses on issues of politics, was one of roughly three dozen accredited bloggers at the convention. For his site, he interviewed Rod O'Conner, CEO of the event. "What I found was they had subtly redefined the convention," explains Rosen. Organizers thought of the convention as "a powerful jolt that you could use to send a message to the country through a variety of media," and not just something that went out on network TV.

Getting political messages out is what Bill Hillsman does. He has worked on some very successful political campaigns, from Paul Wellston's upset senate triumph in Minnesota in 1990, to Jesse Ventura's 1998 out-of-nowhere gubernatorial triumph. He is the chief creative officer at North Woods Advertising in Minnesota and he broke down his approach to political media buying.

"We invest a lot more in the creativity and the production of the message, which allows us to run less broadcast TV," Hillsman says. "It allows us to target more with cable TV. Then we use things like a radio overlay that's aimed at either a specific geographic or demographic component," he explains. "We also always use an online component. Not in terms of advertising, but in terms of reinforcing the Web site in other media." Hillsman says that his use of other media, like newspapers, is tactical. "If you place a [newspaper] ad in the Sunday before an election it's usually money very well spent for undecided voters."

Still, few people in the country would minimize the power of television to reach political constituents. Almost anyone with a political opinion points to the presidential debates as one of the most important events in the run-up to the election. There is no better medium through which to reach millions of people with your message all at once. The campaigns are still pumping plenty of money into TV. However, as the Internet and devices like TiVo fragment TV audiences, the impact may change. "Somewhere in the not-too-distant future, I think we'll see television's powers diminished in some of the ways radio's were. The Internet's power as an interactive medium will continue to grow. On the Internet, you have people being able to interact with each other, which doesn't really happen on radio or television," Trippi says.

Media fragmentation is already evident. People pick up political information from across the media landscape: a magazine article here, a televised speech there or an online news story somewhere in the middle. Nearly all of these sources exert meaningful influence on political opinion. According to the American Demographics/comScore survey, when asked to name which sources have the greatest impact on people's political stances, 9 in 15 of the sources cited received at least a 10 percent response. What's more, seven media received a response of 25 percent or more. Not only are people getting their information from sources across the board, but those sources are also influencing political convictions.

When asked if political reporting online has made them more interested in politics, more than 1 in 4 responded that it had. In addition, 22 percent responded that online political information had made them more actively involved in politics. This is a significant number when considered in the context of the total voting population, which was just below 55 percent of the country in the 2000 presidential election. The results from this survey do not necessarily reflect the overall population, just those who spend time online. Notably, however, 79 percent of respondents indicated they had voted before and 89 percent reported that they plan to vote in the 2004 elections. These figures represent a much higher proportion of voters than is expected from the general population in 2004.

Also noteworthy is that responses were equal on both sides of party lines. When asked, fore example, whether the Web had made them more active in politics, of the 23 percent who said yes, 10 percent planned to vote for Bush, and 10 percent for Kerry. Of the six largest political Web sites for July, one is nonpartisan, two are left-leaning and three are right-leaning. According to comScore Media Metrix, when you compare the visitors to the top two left-leaning sites and the top three right-leaning sites, the right edged out the left by just over 600,000 visitors in July. The top political Web site, AOL Elections, saw more visitors than those five sites combined, however, with over 8.4 million unique visitors during the month.

"People who do this [visit nonpartisan political sites online] may be more undecided, independent, information seekers who want to know about both sides before they decide, and the Internet offers them an opportunity to do that," says Linda Kaid, a professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida. "People view the Internet and their ability to go out and seek other information as a possibility to provide more credible information. Information they can check."

The Bush campaign has taken an active approach on its Web site, adding tools to help those interested do everything from writing letters to the editor to organizing pro-Bush parties in their homes. "It's not only to continue to drive all of our communications efforts and spread our message, but also to reach people who are very engaged online and get them to assist the campaign," explains Michael Turk, the e-campaign director for the Bush camp. "There's also a large number of people who have dropped out of traditional media, they don't watch as much TV, they don't listen to the radio as much, but they do spend a great deal of time online. We try to reach out to those folks so that we can extend the reach of our traditional advertising," says Turk.

People spending the most time online are young voters, especially college students, one of the most "plugged-in" groups in the country. The University of Virginia's Sabato sees his students moving away from traditional media. "My students subscribe to virtually nothing and watch virtually no TV," Sabato explains. "They get almost all their news on the Internet. This tells me that in the future, most people will get most of their news from sources on the Internet. They could be televised sources on the Internet or print sources on the Internet." Trippi agrees. "If you look at what's happening with 22 year olds today, what's the more powerful medium going to be when they're 80? It's amazing how much power it does have, even today."

What the Internet may need is a single event that jump-starts the sea change - an event that tips the Internet into the mainstream as an absolutely necessary medium. For television, most people point to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963 as the point that changed TV forever. "I think it was Kennedy's assassination; all of us had the same experience of looking at this box. That was the moment where TV, after a decade of sort of being a novelty, started to own us," Trippi explains. Just when this moment will occur is something no one can pinpoint.

After seeing the impact of the Internet on the 2004 election thus far, this event could happen sooner than later. Trippi anticipates that the 2008 presidential election may be decided by the strength of a campaign's Net organizing skills. "I think [in] 2008, the candidate who understands how to build a huge community on the Net to empower their campaign will probably be the winner. The Internet will clearly be the power that creates the next president of the United States." If Trippi is right, people may look back at four days in November of 2003 as the moment it all changed.

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