GOP Field Is at Home on the Web
Forty years ago, the nation’s more adventurous politicians tried buying ads on an unpredictable new gizmo called television. In much the same spirit, Republican presidential candidates this year have started peddling their messages in cyberspace.
“It’s gotten so that if you’re not out there, people will think there’s something wrong,” said Mike Low, a computer consultant for the presidential campaign of magazine publisher Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes Jr.
Although President Clinton’s campaign has not yet set up an official web site, each of his GOP challengers has launched a “home page” on the Internet’s World Wide Web. These high-tech ads generally feature grainy photos of the candidates, favorite sound-bites from the campaign and, of course, ways to volunteer actual time and real money.
Most of the candidate home pages are carefully serious about their mission, in contrast to the growing competition from mock pages created by computer buffs. Many of these counter-pages aim to amuse; others take a nastier turn. Use of a similar computer address is one way they can entice the unsuspecting browser. The only difference between the addresses of the official Dole page and one fake page, for example, is three letters--.org versus .com.
The reasons for the rush to the World Wide Web are understandable--it is a cheap and easy way to reach millions of American computers. The problem is that even the experts aren’t certain who is signing onto these machines and, more importantly, whether or how they vote.
“Right now, I’d say what’s important is the potential. The potential of the Internet has been barely tapped,” said Gary Koops, press secretary for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign.
“It’s a kind of novelty . . . and politicians are using it as a press release--to show that the campaign is future-oriented--rather than to find votes,” said political consultant Mandy Grunwald, who became well-known in the 1992 campaign for advising Clinton to bypass the traditional media in favor of appearances on MTV and Arsenio Hall’s show.
Technology allows the campaigns to know the numbers of “hits"--the times when someone has bitten the computerized lure and called up the candidate’s propaganda.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s campaign, which launched its page last month, had seen about 341,000 hits as of this week, according to a spokesman. Gramm’s home page publicly registers the number each time a viewer logs on--as of Thursday, the figure stood at more than 215,630. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander had counted 266,125 hits between the time his page appeared on May 12 and late last week.
But who are these people? Are they new visitors or repeat visitors? Are they trolling for the perfect candidate or simply the curious? Are they political competitors logging on to spy or are they loyalists, checking out their prize candidate’s latest success? Or are many of these folks simply lost, accidentally caught on a candidate’s home page on their way to finding a cyber-date?
Question of Numbers
Even the number of users in this anonymous network is a matter of debate. Some estimates range upward to 30 million people. But O’Reilly & Associates, a publisher of computer books in Cambridge, Mass., last month released a survey that suggested there were only 5.8 million adults connected directly to the Internet.
However, the survey also predicted that the number would grow to almost 12 million by spring, 1996. And there already are signs that computer networking--once viewed as a pastime for the well-educated and affluent--has spread far beyond the nation’s upper crust. A new report by The Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press found that within the last two years, a majority of those buying home computers made less than $50,000 a year, according to the poll.
“Three years ago, the people who used computers were the elite, but now it has grown far beyond that,” said Jeff Eller, a computer expert who worked for Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and briefly for his Administration.
Still, Eller is cautious in assessing the short-term impact of the Internet to presidential politics. “I don’t think it’s gotten to the point that this medium can move enough votes to make a difference, and when you look at a political race, obviously it’s moving the votes that matters.”
Added Andrew Kohut, director of The Times Mirror Center: “By the next election, we will have a sufficient number of people online so that this could have an impact on voting and campaign behavior. Now, it’s just too small; more for the political junkies . . . and less for the average consumer.”
In this early period when no consultant can say for certain what works with Web-crawlers, each candidate’s home page is different.
Dole, the GOP front-runner, offers users an extravaganza that includes a trivia quiz about his life.
Among the promotional material provided by the Gramm camp is a list of his strong showings in party straw polls--including not only the contest in Iowa that became a big story late this summer because he tied Dole for first, but his triumphs in such lower-profile votes as the Newaygo County Republican Committee in Freemont, Mich.
The home page for conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan is full of “Breaking News!” (all pro-Buchanan), as well as photos, sound clips and an archive of his articles and speeches. But lest it appear too modern for a candidate boasting his adherence to “traditional values,” his opening photo looks like a banner from a 19th-Century political convention--complete with a picture of the candidate on a brown-tinted background.
Even those Republicans who are way back in the field hold their own on the Web. Former State Department official Alan Keyes, for example, gives his background, his speeches and “comments about Alan Keys by Rush Limbaugh.”
Amid the different make-ups of the pages, a common tactic has emerged--most of the campaigns try to collect e-mail addresses in much the same way that residential address cards are passed out at rallies or shopping centers.
The relatively low cost of politicking via the Internet is one of its prime attractions--especially in an age when buying television time can strain even the most well-financed campaign.
A spokesman for Dole estimated that the cost of setting up their home page was about $15,000. Gramm press secretary Koops said maintenance of their site runs about $1,000 a month. For most of the campaigns, this is pocket money.
“I don’t know any other way to reach 30,000 to 40,000 people a month at virtually no cost,” said Terry Holt, press secretary for Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar’s presidential campaign. “There is the press, of course, but you people filter the message.”
Although the candidate home pages so far have not been used for political mudslinging, the first signs of future battles are surfacing.
The Gramm campaign was embarrassed earlier this year when the company they hired to set up his home page also provided an index for ordering pornographic films as part of its services. That meant a person visiting Gramm’s page could stray onto that index.
A Gramm staff member accused Alexander’s staff of spreading the word that their candidate’s page was only a few hops away from cyber-sex. “It had nothing to do with us,” Koops said. “But the real question to [Alexander staffers] is how did they know?”
The sniping among campaigns, however, is not so troubling to some as the barbs that have begun appearing from less traditional quarters. Official candidate home pages have found themselves vying with the unofficial pages--some done with elfin mischievousness, others reminiscent of dirty tricks in past campaign seasons.
For example, shortly before Dole established his home page, a computer wizard elsewhere had created a mock page that was so real-looking that many people took it as a sign that the senator had a weird sense of humor. The fake page played on the Dole pineapple theme and said that the Kansan was “the ripe man for the job” of President. It also warned that other candidates were “weenies.” When the Web visitor clicked on the word “weenies,” a picture of California’s Gov. Pete Wilson appeared.
More ominously, a fake home page modeled after Buchanan’s included miniature Nazi flags in the background of the opening photo.
A tour of the Internet landscape also makes clear that the care and feeding of the official pages has a way to go. For one thing, unless a potential voter has a high-speed computer and modem, it takes time and patience to crawl through these pages, often to find information that is out-of-date.
One example: Under “What’s New” on Alexander’s home page on Oct. 20 was a “VCR alert” that noted an “upcoming” Alexander appearance on Oct. 10.
Times researcher Rob Cioe contributed to this story.
* TALK SHOWS RAPPED: Bennett, allies open fire on daytime TV talk shows. A19
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Items contained on candidate home pages allow viewers to see a wide range of campaign material, order campaign bumper stickers, receive audio and video campaign recordings, and find out where to send campaign contributions.
Candidate: Patrick J. Buchanan
You can...: fill out a volunteer form and enlist in the Buchanan Brigade.
Candidate: Sen. Bob Dole
You can...: find out about the groups and organizations that are supporting his candidacy.
Candidate: Lamar Alexander
You can...: read this weekly press release called “Nashville Notes.”
Candidate: Sen. Richard G. Lugar
You can...: cast a ballot telling the campaign what issues are important to you.
Candidate: Sen. Phil Gramm
You can...: request a campaign bumper sticker and button.
For information on other campaigns: Project Vote Smart