FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - John McCain's Internet success in the presidential primaries will incite sweeping changes in U.S. politics. As television reinvented politics in the wake of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, so will the Net change the ways candidates campaign and voters vote.
Although he has all but lost the Republican race to George W. Bush, McCain's online success in fund raising and recruiting of campaign help has become the stuff of legend. In the days following his surprise victory in New Hampshire, he raised a half-million dollars online. All together, his Web site collected $5.6 million and signed up 60,000 volunteers. Responding to McCain's success, the other candidates - including the Democrats - have attempted to better utilize the Web as a campaign tool. But the Net's impact on politics is only beginning to be felt. In the coming years, it will infiltrate all levels of politics in the following ways:
-- It will become the most efficient campaigning channel. McCain's New Hampshire "bounce" spelled an online cash infusion and invigorated an insurgent campaign that four years ago would have had to wait anxiously by the mailbox for donations. The Internet also amplifies the benefits of free media exposure, especially from TV, and lets candidates bypass the party establishment to connect directly with voters and their wallets, which was key for McCain.
Additionally, it lowers the costs of raising money; voters come to the campaign, rather than leaving it up to the campaign to reach out through expensive fund raisers, mass mailings or TV ads.
In the future, candidates will use personalization technology to tailor their messages to constituents, taking cues from dot-coms and offering visitors experiences that match their desires. The "tax calculator" on Bush's site offers an early example of personalization that will become the norm on candidates' sites.
-- Hyperinformed voters switch parties seamlessly. The Net further liquefies voters' fluid party affiliations. Voters have a wealth of information available to them online, as well as the ability to seek information on specific issues.
Voters can jump quickly to support candidates whose agendas they support. This same widespread availability of information will also allow third-party candidates to quickly gain voters' attention because their campaign messages around narrow issues can be cheaply and efficiently communicated. Already, sites like SelectSmart.com and Candidatecompare.com allow voters to find the candidates who most closely match their views.
-- Online voting triumphs over apathy. The increase in Net political activity, coupled with a rise in the number of households online (nearly 40 percent at present) sets the stage for Internet voting. We expect online voting to gain widespread acceptance by 2008, but not before it overcomes significant hurdles, such as the lawsuit that tried to block the Arizona Democratic Party's online presidential primary on grounds that it widens the digital divide. Challenges include determining how to authenticate each voter's identity, preventing the fraud that can occur with absentee ballots and ensuring that online voting doesn't shut out poor or minority voters. But online voting is the e-commerce transaction of the political process, and most of that process will be moved online for convenience-hungry Americans by 2010.
The Internet has the potential to reinvent the political process, offering a cleaner, easier brand of political advocacy to a generation of previously disinterested voters. The ability to make donations online and to participate in virtual grassroots movements allows citizens to re-enter the political process in a way that reflects "me generation" values: pitching in on their own terms and not getting their hands dirty knocking on neighbors' doors. As candidates and voters learn to harness the Net, more active participation in politics will be just a few points and clicks away for a new generation of voters.