Text-Based Interactivity in Candidate Campaign Web Sites: A Case Study from the 2002 Elections

Article excerpt

OVER THE COURSE of the past decade, the World Wide Web has played a progressively increasing role in political campaigning. Gary Selnow (1998) noted that 1996 was the first year that political campaigns used the Web for mass campaigning, since then its use has increased dramatically in local, state, and federal elections (Benoit & Benoit, 2000; Bimber, 1998; D'Alessio, 1997, 2000; Dulio, Goff, & Thurber 1999; Poupolo, 2001; Schneider & Foot, 2002; Whillock, 1997). By early summer 2003, for example, ten presidential campaigns had already established an active Web presence for the 2004 presidential race. Indeed, former presidential candidate Howard Dean's campaign Web site played a prominent role in Dean's overall campaign strategy.

The present study will focus on campaigns for U.S. House during Autumn 2002. As in other federal election categories, House candidate campaign Web sites have increased in number since 1996 when only 16 percent of House candidates had their own sites. That percentage increased to 40.6 percent in 1998; 53 percent in 2000; and 62 percent in 2002. (1) Many reasons exist for these increases. Candidates for Congress have discovered that their campaign sites provide a relatively low budget mechanism for soliciting campaign contributions and mobilizing volunteers. These sites also serve as points of origin for information about the campaign. And they are widely used by the press to identify candidates' stands on the issues, planned appearances, and responses to opponents' criticisms and issues raised by the public.

As one political consultant observed, campaign Web sites have developed from "a token tool to an absolutely must have tool" (Williams, 2001, p. A17). This notion is widely accepted by political consultants and trade journals such as Campaigns & Elections (Cornfield, Safdar, & Seiger, 1998; Dorsey & Green, 1997; Faucheux, 1998). Web sites have made such an indelible mark on the campaign process that the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet (IPDI, 2002) published Online Campaigning 2002: A Primer. Targeted at candidates and campaign managers, this primer offered instruction on how to strategically use the Internet in campaigns and outlined a set of "best practices" for Internet campaign Web sites. Ultimately, as Schneider and Foot (2002) suggest, most campaigns feel there is a need for some Internet presence.

Although political campaigns see the necessity of Web-based campaigning, campaign Web sites have yet to realize their full potential as a medium to improve communication between candidates and Web users and to influence voters. Their failure to do so is partly due to many candidates' inclination to treat their Web site as if it were a static campaign flyer. In contrast, the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet (IPDI) advised campaign managers to avoid "brochureware" (by which they meant print campaign materials that are merely uploaded to a campaign Web site) because such an approach neither attracts and engages Web users nor effectively utilizes the Web medium. Foot and Schneider (2002) argued that although most campaigns in the 2002 election used basic features (termed brochureware), and adaptations of other traditional campaign practices (online donation, news and press releases), few campaigns used features for which the Internet is particularly well adapted such as interactive polls, alternate language versions, disabled access versions, and site specific search engines. We contend that an important element in the move away from brochureware will involve developing campaign sites that harness the interactive potential of the Internet.

In this essay, we offer a rhetorical perspective to what has been a largely media-based discussion of interactivity in political campaign Web sites. Drawing from previous literature in interactivity and Bakhtin's dialogism and heteroglossia, we argue for a new framework--text-based interactivity--through which researchers can attend to previously understudied aspects of interactivity (elements of rhetorical form, content, and design). …