Campaign Politics and the Digital Divide: Constituency Characteristics, Strategic Considerations, and Candidate Internet Use in State Legislative Elections

Article excerpt

The Internet has created a digital and a political divide. Just as the elderly, those less well educated, and some minorities are less likely to use the Internet than other Americans, candidates for lower-level offices are less likely to use it than presidential and congressional candidates. Beyond this, little is known about candidates' Internet use. Using data describing state legislative candidates' characteristics, campaigns, and districts, the authors find that candidates who have younger and better-educated constituents do more campaigning online. The number of years a candidate has spent in electoral politics also is relevant. The strategic and structural circumstances of the race have a major impact on candidates' Internet use.

Keywords: campaigns; digital divide; state legislature; state legislators; elections

Candidates employ an array of technologies in their efforts to reach voters and win elections. In recent years, the Internet has become an increasingly prevalent campaign tool. Many candidates for federal and statewide offices use Web pages to communicate information about their qualifications, career and personal achievements, and policy positions. E-mail and candidate home pages have become popular for organizing campaign events, raising money, mobilizing supporters, and distributing information. The 2004 presidential campaign showed that the Internet can have dramatic effects on some candidates' ability to raise campaign resources and organize activists. Candidates such as Howard Dean and John Kerry raised tens of millions of dollars from small online donations, and sites like Meetup.com helped candidates recruit hundreds of thousands of campaign volunteers (Hindman 2005).

Having become an important feature of many citizens' daily lives, the Internet has become increasingly important in campaign politics (Margolis, Resnick, and Tu 1997; Dulio, Groff, and Thurber 1999; Shea and Burton 2001). Most scholarship about online campaigning has focused on Internet use among candidates for president, Congress, or statewide office (e.g., Bimber and Davis 2003; Herrnson 2004; Puopolo 2001; Karmack 1999; King 1999; Klotz 1997). Yet some lines of argument suggest that in the long run, the Internet's impact may be particularly pronounced in campaigns for lesser offices, which are usually low-information events that receive little coverage in traditional media. Some observers have argued that because the Internet is a cost-effective means of unmediated communication, it might be of disproportionate benefit to organizations and candidates with limited resources (Bimber 2003; Norris 2001). This suggests candidates for the state legislature may have strong incentives to engage in online campaigning.

However, as the Internet has become an increasingly important part of American life, there have been persistent concerns about its impact on political equality. Early scholarship focused on disparities in access, noting that traditionally disadvantaged groups lagged in their use of the Internet (National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA] 1995,1998; Dunham 1999; Margolis and Resnick 2000). While some of these gaps have narrowed, age, socioeconomic status, and race remain powerful predictors of Internet use (DiMaggio et al. 2004; Warschauer 2003; Mossberger, Tolbert, and Stansbury 2003). More recent scholarship has focused on the "second-level" digital divide, defined by the gap between skilled and unskilled users, and the "third-level" digital divide, which encompasses the gap between the politically engaged and the politically indifferent (Hargittai 2002; Norris 2001; Cornfield 2000).

Much attention has focused on factors that influence Internet use by the population, but comparatively little consideration has been given to the factors that shape political candidates' use of this medium. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that a trickle-down effect has occurred, with lower-level campaigns following the example set by candidates for higher office. …