Jewish World Review Feb 26, 2004 / 4 Adar, 5764

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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The year of the Internet | Howard Dean's demise was all the media's fault, says Joe Trippi, the former Vermont governor's onetime campaign manager and Web wizard. "It wasn't a dot-com crash," he insists, "it was a dot-com miracle being shot down."

Trippi is living on Planet Nerdo. Dean's biggest enemy wasn't the press; it was the candidate himself. But just because this election year did not produce a "dot-com miracle," it would be a big mistake to underestimate the Web's impact and influence.

In fact, 2004 could be called The Year of the Internet. In all sorts of ways — from raising money and energizing voters to narrowcasting commercials and spreading rumors — the Internet is coming of age as an essential part of the political process. Four examples illustrate this point:

THE DEAN CAMPAIGN: The most obvious contribution of the Web was to fund-raising. An obscure former governor of an obscure state raised over $40 million, a Democratic record. Building on John McCain's campaign in 2000, the Deaniacs harnessed the interactive nature of the Web, making it easy to give money and creating a model that all candidates will follow in the future (unless they're nuts).

The Deaniacs also used the Web to involve voters in an emotional way, to turn them from passive observers into active participants. As Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet & American Life Project told the New York Times: "The Dean legacy is that he taught people how to use the social networking piece of the Internet, and that's permanent and lasting."

But the Dean campaign also exposed two flaws that future campaigns will have to fix: 1) The Web is useful for recruiting true believers, but far less helpful in reaching uncommitted swing voters or untutored dot-comers, like seniors or minorities; 2) Even the most ardent acolytes are no good to the campaign unless they turn off their modems and turn out to vote.

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DATA-MINING: As the New York Times Magazine recently reported, Web-savvy strategists are using commercial marketing techniques to comb through vast databases and "microtarget" individual voters based on dozens, even hundreds, of data points about their preferences and priorities.

The author of the Times Magazine article, Jon Gertner, put it this way: "Someone who appears nonpartisan, someone who might even think of himself as nonpartisan, may nevertheless have a political DNA that the parties will be able to decode." Once they crack the code, campaigns will then be able to appeal to each voter in increasingly narrow and specific ways, often using the Web to make their pitch.

VIDEO ADS: The Bush campaign introduced a Web-based video commercial attacking John Kerry's record weeks before airing paid ads on broadcast networks. (They also used e-mail to notify political reporters about the ads, and to generate a wave of free publicity.)

Web ads are quicker and cheaper to produce than on-air commercials, and are exempt from the rule that a candidate must appear in an ad and endorse its contents. As a result, Web-based messages can be sharper and nastier, leading one analyst to describe them as the "back alley" of political campaigning.

Moreover, Web ads can be sent by e-mail — for free — to countless new recipients in ever-expanding circles. The effect could be something like your own private broadcasting network with only one purpose: to air your commercial.

RUMORS: Web-based media outlets have undermined two pillars of the mainstream press: news cycles and ethical standards. The first result might be useful; the second is definitely not.

Web sites are always online and open for business, so news — and rumors — can break and spread at any time. The recent story involving John Kerry's possible dalliance with an intern illustrates how this works.

Mainstream outlets held off for days. Some finally mentioned the report after the senator answered a question about it on the Don Imus radio show. Others waited until the woman in question issued a flat denial. "Clearly," wrote Web blogger Mickey Kaus, "we seem to be settling into an equilibrium where standards on the Web are different."

In other words, Web bloggers are less reliable and accountable. That means consumers have to be more skeptical in believing what they read, and mainstream journalists have to be more diligent in maintaining their own ethical norms.

So even if there won't be any "dot-com miracles" in 2004, politics will never be the same after The Year of the Internet.

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