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Internet Illusions

But of course McCain lost. And as Jonathan Koppell, of the New America Foundation and Yale School of Management’s political science department, pointed out in March, even the donors who gave money through the website knew its address only because they saw it on TV or in the newspaper. McCain’s “Internet” victory underscored the importance of the pre-Internet media.5 Just as the rise of “new economy” companies had oddly enriched old-media dinosaurs, because Internet companies felt they needed to advertise on network TV and in magazines to get noticed (to say nothing of using billboards and buses), so McCain’s site worked only when people’s attention had been directed there by other means. E-mail and the Internet of course became part of the working environment for this year’s campaign, as they have for businesses and universities. Campaigns send out press releases by e-mail and use websites to organize supporters. But these are new means toward familiar ends, rather than something fundamentally different in politics. At no point since McCain’s surge in February has the Internet even appeared decisive in the strategy or outcome of the campaign.

In the long run, the Internet will surely change politics as much as it changes business. In the Internet world, the current cliché is that trying to estimate the network’s ultimate implications is like trying to foresee today’s overcrowded airline system while watching the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. Still, how little difference the Internet has made in this year’s politics is surprising. Consider the ways in which we might have expected already to see its effect.

One sign that the Internet had fundamentally changed politics would be that it took less cash to become a serious political contender. Money mainly goes for TV ads, and if the “intermediaries” of the big networks were losing their prominence, then money would not matter as much. But this election is the most expensive in history. As of mid-September, the Bush-Cheney campaign had raised more than $177 million, and Gore-Lieberman had raised more than $126 million, for a total of $303 million. At a similar point in the 1996 campaign, the two parties had raised a total of $237 million. In 1992, $123 million. George W. Bush frightened off other competitors by the sheer size of his early war chest. Jon Corzine has spent an unprecedented $35 million, much of it his own money, in his race for the Senate in New Jersey. Hillary Clinton and Rick Lazio combined have raised more than $63 million in New York.6 In the final year of his presidency Bill Clinton has attended an average of one fund-raising event every other business day, accumulating by mid-September more than $90 million for his party, his vice-president, and his wife.7

Another expected effect of Internet politics would be an influx of new faces and surprising contenders, who had used the novel communications channels to get their message out to voters. Yet when the early favorites for the nomination, Gore and Bush, encountered considerable opposition from the “new faces,” Bill Bradley and John McCain, they were soon able to squash them. The final matchup is like something from the Federalist era: the son of a president, and grandson of a senator, against the son of another senator. Compare this to four years ago, when the son of a salesman, Bill Clinton, ran against the son of a grocer, Bob Dole. Even the two minor-party candidates, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, are far more familiar than, say, Wendell Willkie was when he burst on the scene sixty years ago, or Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Another expected sign of the Internet’s influence would be candidates’ efforts to address “virtual” constituencies, united mainly through electronic means, rather than dealing state-by-state and bloc-by-bloc in traditional machine politics. The one nationwide constituency clearly being addressed this year is retirees—but they are addressed almost every year, because of their high voter-turnout rate. Otherwise the race is being run as a clas-sic battle for undecided voters in “swing states”—Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania. It is because of dynamics like this that Darin Barney argues, in Prometheus Wired, that the old political problems, of power and accountability, will be the continuing problems of the digital age.

Finally, an important sign of an “Internet election” would be that the old media in general, and TV in particular, would wane in significance. But arguably the last three months have reinforced the centrality of TV coverage. The party conventions are mocked as made-for-TV shams, which “no one” watches. Yet each campaign got its biggest boost from the party’s week of convention coverage on TV. According to one Newsweek poll, Gore was ten points behind Bush just before the Democratic convention—and eight points ahead of Bush immediately after the convention,8 which in turn was remembered and discussed largely for Tipper and Al Gore’s lengthy on-camera kiss. Both parties and all commentators viewed the televised debates as the most important remaining events in the campaign. And just as in the pre-Internet days, the impressions candidates made via TV strongly affected their standing—Gore’s sighing and strange makeup in the first debate, his greater restraint in the second, Bush’s struggle to avoid malapropisms in both cases.

What the Internet did to NBC, with its Olympics coverage, underscored what the Internet did not do to TV coverage of politics. People stopped watching NBC’s prime-time coverage of the Olympics when they could find out the results hours earlier via the Internet and cable TV. But they kept getting political opinions from television. As Marshall Sella pointed out in September in The New York Times Magazine,9 TV may have been more politically influential this year than ever before, because of the tone-setting role of late-night comics. David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart (of cable’s Comedy Central) together establish images of politicians more powerfully than Johnny Carson, on his own, could a generation ago. As Sella explained, the comics also pose a significant problem for Bush. His stock image—the Idiot—seemed at first more of an electoral problem than Gore’s, the Stiff.10 Humor websites have also been hard on Bush—the latest, funniest example is www.george-w-dance.homepage.com. But their role is limited and nichelike, in the way talk radio’s is.

The one way in which the Internet has inarguably changed the political result is to boost yet again the ever-faster cycle time of shifts in conventional wisdom. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran for president, I worked for him and traveled on his plane. In those pre-cable, pre-e-mail days, you could watch the way the conventional wisdom was disseminated. The several dozen reporters in the traveling press pool would talk on the way to and from events and informally work out a consensus on how the candidate had done. They would file their stories, and type up “pool reports” to share with correspondents who weren’t on scene. The first inkling that the rest of the press had about the tone of coverage was the evening’s news broadcast, with a fuller rendering in the next day’s papers.

Round-the-clock news channels were a step toward speeding the cycle, with breaking news being transmitted instantly and pundits on most of the time too. But they had the drawback of volatility—if you missed them when they were broadcast, it was hard to catch up. The main Internet political sites—Slate, Salon, MSNBC, the sites run by the major newspapers—have made it easier for reporters to compare impressions quickly. This in turn has accounted for ever-faster shifts in prevailing opinion. This helped Gore recover after the Democratic convention, and helped Bush after the first two debates.

2.

There is one other way in which the Internet has not counted in this election, which points toward a larger way in which it will eventually affect politics. Early this year, when “Net economics” still seemed to have rewritten the rules of finance, political debates were full of discussion of Internet-related issues. Some involved the social consequences of the Internet’s growth. Would a “digital divide” aggravate the separation between educated white and Asian Americans and people with little education, especially from Hispanic and black minorities? Could Internet companies be trusted with all the personal, medical, and financial data they were collecting? Could parents find any way to protect their children from the violent and pornographic material on the Internet?

Some of the discussions involved the Internet itself, as a business. How should copyright holders be protected, when digital versions of music, movies, and books could be copied and downloaded virtually free? What about taxation? Was there any good reason to prolong the current fiction that since sales over the Internet don’t happen in a physical place, they should be exempt from any state’s sales tax? (Answer: There is no good reason. Politicians preposterously argue that sales tax would harm the development of this “fledgling” industry. They’re really just afraid to offend any of the potential donors associated with it.)

Representatives of computer and Internet companies formed a political action group, called TechNet, to lobby on these issues and others—especially in favor of maintaining trade relations with China, a crucial future customer, and expanding the so-called H-1B visa program, under which some 115,000 skilled technicians from overseas are granted entry to the United States each year. Nearly half of these come from India and are destined for work in the US computer industry. In October, Congress voted to raise the annual ceiling for H1-B visas to 195,000.

Both the Bush and the Gore campaigns support the increase in H1-B visas and oppose sales taxes on the Internet. But no Net-related issue received attention in either candidate’s acceptance speech, in the vice-presidential debate, or the first two presidential debates. Part of the reason (as Jacob Weisberg explained in Slate11 ) is that the states where tech issues matter most are for now politically least crucial. California, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York are assumed to be safely in Gore’s camp; Texas (with Dell and Compaq) and Virginia (with AOL) are safely with Bush. In the states where the battle is being fought, votes aren’t won or lost over H-1B visas.

A further reason is that the new rich of the high-tech era are confusing to the parties. Ten years ago, people who worked in the computer industry gave a total of only $1.2 million to political candidates. In the first half of this year, they gave at least $22 million.12 Ten years ago, contributions were split fifty-fifty between Democrats and Republicans, and they are split almost the same way now. Michael Dell, of Dell Computers in Austin, has been a leading donor to George W. Bush. So has John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco (which makes routers, hardware that directs traffic on the Internet). John Doerr, the leading venture capitalist of Silicon Valley, has been an aggressive fund-raiser for Al Gore. So has Marc Andreesen, cofounder of Netscape.

  1. 5

    Jonathan G.S. Koppell, “Where’s the Revolution?,” The Industry Standard, March 6, 2000, www.thestandard.com/article/display/0,1151,12538,00.html.

  2. 6

    The invaluable Center for Responsive Politics provides updates on these and other campaign figures at www.opensecrets.org.

  3. 7

    Marc Lacey, “Noncandidate Clinton’s Steady Refrain: I Believe in Fundraising,” The New York Times, September 25, 2000.

  4. 8

    Web Exclusive,” Newsweek, August 19, 2000.

  5. 9

    The Stiff Guy versus the Dumb Guy,” The New York Times Magazine, September 24, 2000.

  6. 10

    Sella says: “Some caricatures are just more damaging than others. Being called Dumb is more devastating than being called Stiff—that’s comedy math, pure and simple. The elemental dynamics of humor have made late-night jokes more punishing on Governor Bush. And that helps Al Gore.”

  7. 11

    See Jacob Weisberg, “Why the Net Can’t Swing,” slate.msn.com/netelection/entries/00-09-20_89892.asp.

  8. 12

    Federal Election Commission figures, as reported by Center for Responsive Politics. See www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp?Ind=B12.

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