The Clinton White House and almost all of the 1996 Republican presidential candidates have set up shop on the World Wide Web. The Web is part of the Internet in which users create "home pages" or on-line brochures with audio excerpts from speeches, colorful graphics, press releases and biographical information. "In 1996, being on the Internet will be as essential to campaigns as bumper stickers and yard signs," declares Chris Casey, a Democratic Senate staffer who helped coordinate Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy's pioneer on-line campaign in 1994. The Internet links an estimated 10 million to 20 million people all over the globe - 80 percent of whom live in the United States. "It will be more the exception for a candidate who's not on the Internet," says Casey.
Just as railroads gave birth to the whistle-stop tours and radio and television - especially cable TV - afforded automatic access to political events, cyberspace has created a venue for virtual campaign headquarters. Many call this speedy entree onto the information superhighway a campaign gimmick destined to slow down. But 50 years ago, many also scorned television. "TV is the greatest medium ever created, but it won't be able to hold that title much longer," says Jim Jonas of CN/Sinterctive, a new company providing computer guidance to Republican politicians and groups. "The Internet will blow it out of the water."
Just ask Republican presidential hopeful Alan Keyes, who launched his campaign in March partially because of Internet activity on his behalf, according to Bill Kling, news director for the campaign. After addressing a February GOP dinner in New Hampshire, the Focus on the Family radio network broadcast his comments. Several activists transcribed his speech and entered it on the Internet, where others downloaded and distributed it to their civic and church groups. It's a direct campaign," explains Kling. "It's unfiltered and unedited. This is something the conservative campaigns have been looking for." Steve Wagner, vice president of the Arlington, Va.-based Luntz Research, agrees: "This is what people want. They're looking for responsiveness. The ultimate form of interactivity is the Internet."
But just as the emergence of televised campaigns created the need for a Fairness Doctrine, on-line campaigning will require the nation to revisit its elections laws, worries Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who sits on an American Bar Association committee studying the Internet's impact on elections. And once this information exists, Corrado asks, to what extent should candidates have a right to use it? "Will that mean that if an on-line service sponsors a chat for one candidate, do they also have to give the same amount of time to another?"
What about grassroots movements? Can an on-line petition be checked for fraudulent signatures? Indeed, is a cyberspace signature legal? Some people have numerous on-line accounts with different names. What about regulations for on-line fund raising?
NewtWatch recently became the first political action committee to receive Federal Election Commission approval to solicit contributions on the Web. "Our entire campaign finance system works because PACs, parties and candidates know the rules of the game," Corrado explains. "Think about the realm of independent expenditures they'll have to record with on-line fund raising."
So many questions, so much time. Most campaign strategists don't anticipate the Internet becoming as mainstream as barbecues and buttons until well into the 21st century Still, cyberspace can provide candidates with a more level playing field than TV, where ads can cost a fortune to produce and run. Developing a home page is a cost-effective campaign tool - one that will enable low-budget campaigns to have a voice.
But candidates will need to be more accountable on the Internet than they are now in TV ads and direct-mail campaigns. …