Going Negative: Candidate Usage of Internet Web Sites during the 2000 Presidential Campaign

Article excerpt

This study examines the news releases that were posted on the official campaign Web sites of George W. Bush and Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign. Analysis of each of the 487 news releases posted during the campaign season reveals that nearly three-quarters of these contained an attack on the opponent. This parallels data on the incidence of attacks appearing in televised political advertising during the 2000 campaign. The study provides support for the Political Competition Model, which posits that close races produce significant negativity. Furthermore, the study offers insights on how presidential political campaigns may use campaign Web sites in the future.

This study focuses on the information contained on the 2000 official campaign Web sites of George W. Bush and Al Gore. Web sites have the potential of developing into important communication tools during political campaigns. As with televised debates and political advertising, Web sites afford candidates the opportunity to spotlight accomplishments and policies, contrast their positions against opponents, and criticize the opposing candidate(s). As streaming video and other information distribution systems continue to evolve, candidates may expand their use of Internet technologies to communicate information to voters.

Campaigns used Internet technologies as early as 1988 for electronic mail and to coordinate field operations. By 1992, the use of the Internet by large numbers of people was so widespread that Ross Perot suggested that the medium be used as an Electronic Town Hall. The Clinton-Gore campaign platform included an "information superhighway" plank.1 Both former President Bill Clinton and Republican Candidate Bob Dole maintained web pages throughout their 1996 campaigns. However, the advancement of Internet technologies and the remarkable adoption rate by consumers made the 2000 Presidential Internet campaign especially interesting. Indeed, the Republican National Committee touted the Internet offerings provided during the 2000 election season as media history in the making, on par with the debates between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy nearly a half-century ago.

Recent data indicate that many voters have turned to the Internet for election news in recent years. A survey conducted in 1997 by the polling firm of Louis Harris and Associates revealed that nearly 35 million people used the computer to gather political information during the 1996 presidential campaign. At that time, politicians primarily used the Internet as a means by which to provide biographies, solicit financial support, and attract assistance from potential activists and voters.2 By the 2000 campaign, more than 144 million Americans could view candidate Web sites from their homes.3 A nationwide survey conducted in 2000 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press suggests that Web sites are quickly becoming an important source of election news and information.4 Survey data revealed that the audience for online campaign news has expanded, increasing fourfold over the past four years.

In this study, we characterize the textual content that was posted over time on the campaign Web sites as news releases because this was the terminology used by officials that maintained the Web sites selected.5 The term "news release" has historically been applied to textual or video information that is distributed primarily to members of the news media to be used as a basis for news stories. By contrast, Bush and Gore Web sites contained news and information targeted both at the media and voters. The news releases posted on the 2000 candidates' Web sites contained a variety of content, including transcripts of radio and television ads, results of polls, statements made by the candidates or their representatives, and on-site campaign reports. As such, the 2000 presidential candidates' Web sites offered citizens an opportunity to access much of the information that heretofore had been distributed primarily to representatives of news agencies. …