The Internet & Retail Politics

Mark Bonchek
Jock Gill
February 10, 1996


Politicians who understand the unique properties of new media are in a superior position to defeat their opponents and govern successfully. Great Democratic Presidents have been especially prescient in capitalizing on the benefits of new media. In the 1930's, Franklin Roosevelt capitalized on the national reach of radio to bring a nation together in a way that newspapers could not. In 1960, John F. Kennedy understood that television is an inherently visual medium and created an image-based style of leadership that led him to victory. Nixon lost the debate of 1960, and ultimately the election, because he failed to adapt to the world brought on by the new medium of television.

The Internet has emerged as the new political medium for the 21st century. The White House home page already receives over 20,000 visitors per day. The major parties and presidential candidates have all mounted Web sites receiving thousands of visitors, and over 1500 political home pages have been created in the last 18 months. The Presidential candidates are struggling to capitalize on this new opportunity with their own web sites, but their strategies remain unfocused and their contribution to electoral success remains uncertain.

The candidate who will follow in the footsteps of Kennedy and Roosevelt will be the candidate who best capitalizes on the unique characteristics of the Internet. The Internet is different from other media because it is uniquely able to facilitate group communication and cooperation. On the Net, citizens can be both senders and receivers of information and can communicate with anyone. In broadcast media, citizens are restricted to being passive receivers of information and cannot interact with each other. The Internet is therefore superior to radio, television, and newspapers for building community, facilitating participation, and involving grass-roots support -- the foundation of traditional 'retail' politics.

Political candidates have failed to capitalize on the community-building capabilities of the Internet. Most candidates are using the Net to broadcast information to Net users as if they were a television audience. Virtually no attention has been given to the Net's ability to foster communication and relationships among citizens. The Net can turn every citizen into both a sender and a receiver, a participant and an observer. Politicians who capitalize on this ability will emerge victorious in the transition to the politics of the 21st century.


We believe the Internet can be used as part of an effective strategy for victory in 1996 by increasing personal and face-to-face campaigning at the precinct and local neighborhood level. The Internet can be used to distribute documents and coordinate campaign tactics among teams of campaign volunteer leaders with email accounts. In their local communities, these volunteers would use traditional techniques of telephone calls, open meetings, registration tables, and door-to-door canvassing to increase voter registration and turnout. This combined Internet/face-to-face strategy is superior to existing non-Internet strategies because it reduces costs, minimizes time delays, and improves the delivery of information and coordination of activities. The strategy is superior to existing Internet strategies because it focuses on face-to-face communication as the method of mobilizing voters.


The rapid growth of the Internet has raised the question of how the Net will affect campaigning and elections. Some people believe that the Internet will make face-to-face campaigning a thing of the past. These people envision a world in which voters make their voting decisions by connecting directly to Web sites offered by each of the candidates. We believe that this vision of the Internet and politics is wrong.

The election of 1992 demonstrated that all politics is still local, even in the emerging age of electronic democracy. Electronic mail, fax machines, Web sites, cable tv, and talk radio have certainly altered the political landscape. But it was face-to-face campaigning at the precinct level that increased voter turnout in 1992. Voters may be getting their information increasingly from electronic sources, but they will continue to register, turnout, and vote for candidates for the same reasons they always have -- because friends, neighbors, family members, and co-workers ask them to register, explain candidates' positions, and remind them to vote.

The Internet will not change the importance of face-to-face campaigning in this or any other election in the near future. The heart of political campaigns will continue to be the deployment of inexpensive and effective strategies for catalyzing voter registration, participation, and turnout.


The myth about the Internet is that it is dominated by young, white, males who are technical, asocial, and alienated, leaning towards libertarianism in their political views. Nothing could be further from the truth. Half of all Web users are over the age of 35. Online users are as connected and concerned for their social relationships as their offline peers, telephoning friends and relatives as frequently as the population as a whole. Politically, the 12-15 million online users are virtually identical to non-users in party identification, presidential voting, and congressional voting (Times-Mirror):

                   Dem  Ind  Rep     Bush  Clinton  Perot
Online Users       25%  43%  32%      37%    44%     18%
Not Online         29%  40%  31%      38%    45%     17%

Studies by Arbitron show that there is a diversity of psycho-graphic groups on the Net. A significant and growing segment of the Net population is older home-owners with children who are attracted by the opportunity for affiliation and community.

Political attitudes among the online population are distinguished by opposition to censorship in public libraries by a margin of 10%, acceptance of homosexuality by a margin of 8%, and support of government regulation by a margin of 5%. Online users feel equally strongly that government should do more to help needy Americans and are just as likely as the general population to believe that "elected officials care what people like me think."

Online users are also more active politically than the general population. They were significantly more likely to vote in the 1994 election, particularly in the 18-29 age group.

                Age    18-29   30-49   50-64     65+
Online Users            32%     58%     80%      NA
Not Online              15%     46%     58%      61%

In summary, contrary to the myth of online homogeneity, the online population has already achieved parity with the political demographics of the nation as a whole. The one critical difference is that online users are more likely to vote.


Given the attractiveness of the online community, how should Presidential campaigns take advantage of the opportunities provided by the new medium of the Net? One approach is to reach Net users directly with campaign information. A second approach is to use the Net as a way to organize campaign volunteers for face-to-face campaigning with the general public. A third approach is to use the Net for fund-raising.

The problem with the first and third approaches is that Net users are still only 10% of the voting population. Targeting Net users directly can have only a limited impact on the election. However, if Net users can be utilized as intermediaries to the general public, then the numbers become more attractive. Can such a plan be implemented successfully? We believe that it can and the rest of this memo outlines its logic, structure, and implementation.

Despite all the attention given to candidates' home pages on the Web, the most effective part of the Internet for political activity is electronic mail, not the World Wide Web. The Web is still primarily a broadcast medium and does not yet allow for the communication, interaction, and collaboration necessary for grassroots organizing and mobilization. Electronic mail is more personal and more interactive than the Web. Email messages appear in your mailbox; Web sites must be sought out. E-mail also supports group communication since messages can be sent easily among groups of individuals.

Citizens and activists around the globe are using electronic mail to communicate, share information, and coordinate political activity with great success. Amnesty International, for example, uses electronic Urgent Action Alerts to notify Amnesty members of human rights abuses in need of intervention. E-mail is used to disseminate the information quickly to members, who then use traditional methods of communication -- letters, phone, and fax -- to pressure the targeted governments. Jim Warren used a similar approach to obtain passage of a California bill putting government information online. E-mail bulletins were sent out to a network of activists informing of them of upcoming hearings and votes. Each activist then called or met with other citizens to mobilize phone and letter-writing campaigns targeted at state representatives. The Advocacy Institute in Washington, D.C. blocked a Smokers' Bill of Rights tour by Philip Morris by using e-mail to coordinate their media strategies among activists in different cities. They were successful in forcing the cancellation of the tour. The rapid response to the signing of the telecommunications bill is a further illustration of the ability of the Net to coordinate activities and mobilize political action. Overall, the most effective use of the Net is an electronic distribution and coordination system for traditional methods of mobilization and political action.

There is an electoral precedent for a strategy of electronic distribution and traditional mobilization. In the 1992 presidential campaign, the Clinton campaign experimentally distributed documents over electronic mail to approximately 100 Clinton volunteers. A survey of these unorganized volunteers found that many were printing out the documents and either distributing them or using the information in face-to-face campaigning. Commenting on their activity, volunteers have stated that their individual efforts would have been more effective if they had been focused and coordinated.


We believe that a focused and coordinated effort in 1996 to combine electronic distribution of campaign information with traditional methods of face-to-face campaigning could have a substantial impact on electoral outcomes in key districts.

Our recommended approach is to assemble teams of campaign volunteers with email accounts, civic skills, and a commitment to the campaign. Access to email could be in their homes, businesses, or community organizing centers in selected electoral precincts. These cyber-ward organizers would be connected to their state campaign headquarters and to each other through email mailing lists. Each cyber-ward worker would be asked to build and lead a team of ten campaign supporters interested in face-to-face campaigning. The model for this approach is the multi-level, network marketing systems that have been used with great success over the last few decades.

Each week an email bulletin would be sent from state campaign HQ out to the cyber-campaigners in each precinct. The bulletin would contain talking points and upcoming events. The cyber-campaigners would use an email discussion list to discuss the bulletin, share campaign tips, and coordinate their campaigning efforts for the week. They would then print and handout, fax, or phone their teams of ten to distribute the information and coordinate their campaigning efforts. With talking points in hand, the members of the teams would fan out into the precinct, tracking down voter lists, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and hosting meetings and events in order to build a strong face-to-face community of local voter-activists.

There are minimal security concerns with this plan. Talking point information and schedules are already widely available. Although it is preferable to keep discussions of organizing tactics and successful methods out of the opposition's hands, leaks would not be disastrous since the information is at a low-level and originates in campaign volunteers, not official spokespeople or high-level strategists. The combination of electronic distribution and traditional campaigning can be seen in the following diagram. Information is distributed electronically from state HQ to the cyber-campaigners. At this point, distribution becomes traditional, fanning out through a network of campaigners in each precinct. Assuming each team member talks to 10 people each week, the information in a single e-mail message would be received by 100 potential voters.

                         |====fax====  team member  ==f2f==  voters
HQ ==email==   cyber-    |===phone===  team member  ==f2f==  voters
             campaigner  |=printout==  team member  ==f2f==  voters
                         |=hardcopy==  team member  ==f2f==  voters


There a number of benefits to a plan combining electronic distribution with traditional face-to-face campaigning.

First, executing the plan is inexpensive and complements existing strategies. Second, the plan incorporates the advantages of the Internet and leaves out the disadvantages. The Internet is superior to all other media in its ability to distribute information quickly and inexpensively and to coordinate group activities. Postal mail would be too slow to deliver the message and does not allow for coordination among the cyber-campaigners. The telephone is poor at delivering the bulletins and does not allow the cyber-campaigners to share their experiences and collaborate on techniques and activities. The fax machine does not allow for group communication and does not scale easily for larger groups. If there were 100 cyber-campaigners, the time and expense of faxing the bulletins would be substantial. In contrast, sending 100 email messages takes no longer than sending one.

A third advantage is that the plan capitalizes on the political demographics of Internet users. We know from surveys of Net users and studies of political participation that Internet users tend to be affluent, educated, technically sophisticated, and politically active. Furthermore, a growing number are more likely to have civic skills necessary for political activity. They are therefore ideal prospects for leaders of campaign teams of this kind. An added benefit is that the technically literate volunteers can teach their team members how to use the Internet and conduct online political organizing. This grass-roots training program saves the party and the campaign considerable expense and establishes an even larger network of skilled and committed volunteers for the next campaign.

Fourth, the campaign would be demonstrating its progressive adoption of new technology and its commitment to equal access and inclusion. Clinton supporters who are active Internet users will be attracted by the opportunity to be a part of the cyber-team. Clinton supporters without Internet access will feel that they can be on the cutting edge even if they don't use a computer. The potential for these supporters to learn about the Internet from their team leaders provides additional inclusivity and incentive for people to participate.

Fifth, the team of cyber-campaigners creates a valuable distributed surveying resource. Online surveys could be used to quickly gain a sense of how active Clinton supporters feel about an issue. Surveys and responses could be generated and tabulated electronically. Cyber-campaigners could do informal, face-to-face polling of their team members' views, providing a low-cost and rapid way of getting feedback on issues, proposals, and events.

Finally, the strategy provides a quick, cheap, and easy foundation for a more extensive long-term strategy emphasizing universal access and face-to-face campaigning. In the medium-term, party-affiliated organizations would be brought into the system and activists would be trained in the use of technology. Outreach efforts would also be initiated to bring technology- assisted campaigning to under-served areas. The long-term vision is a network of cyberward leaders in all communities who are able to organize, collaborate, and make decisions through secure, easy-to-use, and efficient systems.


The Internet has significant advantages over other media for political organizing, particularly regarding speed, cost, and group communication. It's major disadvantage is its high entry cost and limited access. The strategy of electronic distribution and traditional mobilization proposed here capitalizes on these advantages while ensuring that non-Net users are brought into the process and that the priority of the campaign stays on face-to-face campaigning. It is a low-cost experiment that could have a real impact in 1996 while laying a strong foundation for 1998 and 2000.

(Note: This document represents the personal views of Jock Gill and Mark Bonchek and is not intended to represent the views of their affiliated organizations, Penfield-Gill, Inc. or the Political Participation Project.)