The medium in the message

If you surf the Web sites of this year's presidential candidates, it's not hard to figure out who has the buzz -- and who's still asleep in the server room. But will it matter come November?

Published February 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

John McCain's report that he has raised more than $2.5 million online has the other candidates re-evaluating their own Web strategies. "What's he got that I ain't got?" they may well wonder, though it's safe to say that it's the combination of the message and the medium that's responsible here.

Ever since Bill Bradley declared his candidacy from behind a podium emblazoned with his Web site address, the 2000 race has figured to be the year of the Web. Sure, Clinton, Dole and others had a Web presence in '96, but their sites were not very impressive and neither was their traffic, compared to this year's candidates.

Anyone suffering from an information deficit after watching the television coverage of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries may have wanted to hear more on the specific issues. (It would have been hard to hear less without tuning into the Cartoon Network.) Where in the past you would have had to write or call a candidate's headquarters to request whatever position papers, speech transcripts or editorials the candidate may have written (or had written for him), you can now visit their sites for that information.

More importantly, the sites serve as a call-to-arms for volunteers. While many of the young people who have come out for McCain and Bradley have indicated an interest in specific issues, it's the good old-fashioned pennant-waving rhetoric that gets them motivated.

Julia Lyon, 26, is an editor at New York Citysearch. Already a veteran volunteer for several political campaigns (she handed out pamphlets for Clinton in '92), Lyon spent a week in the snow in New Hampshire working for Bradley. "It hadn't occurred to me to go up to New Hampshire until the Democratic Leadership for the 21st Century -- a young NYC Democrats group -- broadcast via e-mail that the campaigns were busing people to New England," she recalls. "A little Web research on the issues later I was up in Manchester seduced with Bradley fervor."

Seduced? Bradley? Fervor? Even a brief conversation with a political zealot reminds you why politics and religion are taboo dinner topics among the polite set. Issues or no, the zeal of the disciple cannot be appreciated by the agnostic. Either you believe or you don't.

"There's something almost evangelical about [Bradley's] public events," she continues, "an infusion of hopefulness for the future."

Now admittedly, few candidates run on a platform of despair over the future, though Jimmy Carter gave it a pretty good try. But in ways that Gore and Bush can't yet seem to emulate, Bradley and McCain are able to speak to the younger audience that is prevalent online -- a group willing to work for nothing.

Students for Bradley, a discrete area on the Bradley site, features a black-and-white photo of the former senator pointing into the crowd with an enthusiasm seldom captured on television. It's a Tony Robbins gesture and the student testimonials that follow are effusive as well.

Race is mentioned on Bradley's site almost as much as integrity, as is the case with Michael Jordan's (downloadable) endorsement. His Airness speaks of "The kind of America I want for my children ... where skin color and eye shape doesn't matter," rather than making vague encomiums to Bradley's "leadership" abilities. You can read about Bradley's stand on a variety of issues in the generic ("Bill Bradley believes that education is the key to fulfilling the American dream") as well as the specific form (voting records, speeches).

Tchotchkes are hot this year. I won't make too much of the fact that The Bradley Store offers a mouse pad (and a free "Bradley 2000" screen saver) while Al Gore's store includes -- a money clip!

Al Gore's site also features an entire 30-minute documentary on the veep and his family ("Fighting for You") as well as nods to the various constituencies he is struggling to please (Gay and Lesbian Americans for Gore, Environmental Voters for Gore). It is thorough, well-managed and every bit as boring as his campaign.

The Issues area on McCain 2000 reads like a FAQ page, with relatively concise answers to questions on topics such as the budget surplus. ("My plan for a strong America is to use the surplus to rescue Social Security; save Medicare; pay down national debt and provide desperately needed tax relief for American families, which will keep the economy humming.")

There are more fleshed-out pages, too. McCain's "Commitment to the Priorities of American Women and Families" does not include the right to abortion (Sorry, ladies!) but his record on voting for wage parity and affordable child care fares better. The site also features speeches written by (and for) him on foreign policy, some studded with enough international arcana (what is "the Uruguay Round"?) to make John Anderson green.

McCain U is the place for college students to get with the program and has drawn a number of volunteers via e-mail. Teens for McCain, which boasts 175 visitors in the past week, is a more modest effort but more amazing for being homegrown. The site's author, Adam Jones, 18, has already volunteered for Michigan Gov. John Engler and Bob Dole. Jones was 14 at the time but as he says, "I have been told I have an old soul."

Clueless is the only way to describe the official site of George W. Bush, recently updated as a "A Reformer with Results." There is a Youth Zone -- "Just for Kids!!!" -- but no area targeted specifically to young people of college or high school age. And I can't imagine elementary school children tuning into the Youth Zone for long. Beneath an illustration of the governor on a baseball card the page proclaims, "Running for President Is a Lot Like Playing Baseball."

The playoffs, see, are like the primaries and the general election is like the World Series. "Baseball players must be able to throw, catch and hit the ball," according to the Youth Zone. "Candidates must know about current events and important issues, such as education."

You notice they don't mention geography or world leaders.

The fact that the architects of Dubya's site chose not to specifically target young voters may be nothing more than an oversight. Or it could also speak to a larger arrogance -- one that may yet prove that candidate's undoing. To take his site's baseball analogy a step further, the Baltimore Orioles, among others, have already proven you can't buy your way into the World Series.

By contrast, Bradley (along with senatorial hopeful Hillary Clinton) have harnessed the power of the Web to sign up volunteers in much the same way that McCain has turned his site into a cash register. That may make McCain the impulse buy of the year, and Bradley's "dignity" may go down in history with Eugene McCarthy's. But both dark-horse challengers have been able to bring some heat -- and friction -- to this cool medium in a way that is still throwing sparks and may yet put a fire under this race.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore George W. Bush John Mccain