PORTLAND, Ore. -- Even though half of all potential voters now use the Internet, public opinion researchers do not expect the wealth of new political information available electronically to increase voter participation in this year's presidential election.
Instead, pollsters and political scientists at the annual meeting of the American Association of Public Opinion Research suggested last week that the Internet's major impact on the 2000 elections will be as an organizing and fund-raising tool.
"It will make it easier for the people who are interested in politics to really be informed, to enrich their experience," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, "but it's not for the people who are marginal in terms of their interest in elections and politics and the larger world."
Surveys by Pew and other organizations estimate that the number of Internet users has doubled since the 1996 presidential election. The new users tend more to be female, less educated and less well-off than the group that was online in 1996.
But while campaigns and interest groups offer a vast array of political information to voters over the Internet, recent surveys have found that Internet users rank politics far down on their list of reasons for going online.
"As the users of the Internet become more like the real world, it becomes less political," said Michael Margolis, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. "Most people aren't interested in politics."
For those who do turn to the Internet for political information, Margolis said the most visited Web sites are those maintained by the traditional sources of political information, the major political parties and news organizations.
"Where we had hoped to see change possible in the Internet, the Net creating a new kind of politics, what in fact we have is more of a politics as usual," he said.
Kohut compared the Internet's impact on politics to that of C-SPAN, the cable television network that began providing gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress nearly two decades ago. Despite that saturation coverage, he said, Americans probably know less about Congress now than they did before the broadcasts.
Still, Kohut said, the Internet already has proved an invaluable tool for candidates to organize their supporters, raise money quickly and efficiently from newly energized followers, and inexpensively target potential voters. …