Online campaigners, citizens, and portals in the 2002 elections


A Report by
Michael Cornfield, Research Director
The Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet
The George Washington University

Lee Rainie, Director
John B. Horrigan, Senior Research Specialist
The Pew Internet & American Life Project

March 21, 2003


This report was funded by separate grants from The Pew Charitable Trusts.  The interviews discussed in Part One were conducted by Stephanie Craig, Justin Germany, and Robert Samaan of the Institute.  The survey discussed in Part Two was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. The portal content analysis in Part Three was performed by Craig, Germany, and Samaan, with additional analysis by Ryan Thornburg of IPDI.


Campaigners have always tried to reach voters in order to win elections.  Citizens have always tried to read campaigns in order to vote their interests.  The Internet seems to offer a great two-way conduit for campaigners and citizens, with plenty of room for third parties to provide context and commentary as well.  Some are making good on the vision of a lively online political discourse pegged to elections.  But at the milestone of the 2002 midterm elections, the evidence shows that political cyberspace was populated mostly by tentative campaigners and wandering citizens.  The major portals of Web traffic played a late, mild, yet remarkably sophisticated role in the proceedings.

This report examines the phenomenon of online politics from three contemporaneous perspectives.  It presents data compiled in October and November 2002 through a survey of American adults, a questionnaire answered by managers and communications directors for campaigns in closely contested races, and a content analysis of campaign information as it appeared on three major Internet portal home pages: AOL, MSN, and Yahoo.  The report also draws on a content analysis of 102 candidate Web sites, and IPDI’s monitoring of the 2002 online campaigns on a daily basis for new and newsworthy developments.

The surveys document two major developments in online politics.  The first is the emergence of e-mail as a mainstream channel of political communication.  E-mail has become an increasingly popular and potent tool for campaigners in America.  Two-thirds of politically engaged Internet users during the 2002 election cycle sent or received email related to the campaign.  The second breakthrough success concerns interest-group Web sites, with 73% of those who use the Internet for politics last year saying they checked such organization sites for information.

No one should expect campaigners, citizens, and portals to communicate harmoniously about elections.  Politics is too contentious for that, reflecting the turbulence of capitalism and divisions in society.  Still, each of these groups of participants in online politics exhibited frustrations with what they aspired to do.  They sat at their respective keyboards, and struck sour notes.

Candidates in closely contested races:

  • Succeeded in using the Internet to conduct political research and communicate with the press, but declined to place online advertisements and failed to coordinate online activities with the national parties.
  • Missed an opportunity to build public confidence about the role of money in their campaigns by leaving it to others to package their financial disclosure data.
  • Larded their Web pages with news releases and endorsement lists, but didn’t include much from and about ordinary citizens.  The online citizenry returned the favor by forwarding campaign email less often than jokes about the campaigns.

Online citizens, that is, Internet users who got political news and information online:

  • Swelled from 33 million to 46 million Americans between the summer of 2000 and November, 2002 –a remarkable 39% increase at a time of declining growth in the overall Internet population and plummeting finances in the dot-com world.
  • Prized research as highly as campaigners, but did not find the information they were looking for (generally, details that reinforced their voting inclinations) as often as online searchers for health and government information.
  • Enjoy participating in online polls and swapping e-mail jokes about the campaigns and elections.

The big Internet portals (AOL, MSN, Yahoo!):

  • Have the capacity to serve as gatekeepers of political information, facilitators of political research, and matchmakers for people with similar political interests and views –and played those roles in descending order.
  • Developed extensive sets of directories and tools for campaign and election activity, but did not promote them very much.

The report concludes with a list of concrete steps that campaigners, citizens, and portals could take in 2004.  These include:

  • Exhibiting grass-roots support in the course of cultivating more.
  • Last-minute and real-time GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operations, openly coordinated among candidates, parties, and groups.
  • Searchable databases that make a case by allowing individual Web users to see how a policy affects them.
  • Humor and blogs (a form of online diary) to create buzz about a campaign.

To the extent these forms of online communication proliferate, the Internet will mature as an instrument of democratic politics in America.