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Monday, January 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
E-conomy / Paul Andrews
Perhaps the biggest loser in last week's Iowa caucus was not an individual candidate but the heralded prowess of the Internet.
In its first true electoral test, the Internet proved to be a dismal index of voter sentiment. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucus, chat rooms, e-mail lists, Web logs and other Internet haunts provided the distinct impression that candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark had assembled unstoppable juggernauts on their way to disrupting politics as usual.
Yet it was John Kerry, an Internet also-ran and decidedly old-guard pol, who stole the show along with John Edwards, the Southern charmer who pronounces "online" as if it were a question. Both have hyperkinetic Web sites and even blogs of a sort (more like news-and-comment sections than personalized missives). But neither can point to Internet-fueled numbers like Dean's $40 million nest egg and 600,000 registered volunteers online.
Still, Dean despite proving the fund-raising pull of the Net and Kucinich, the earliest Net-friendly candidate, were real-world political flops. The Net managed to distort their appeal like the proverbial flea on the elephant, marveling at the dust he raises. (Clark, the third Net musketeer, is still a question mark, having skipped the Iowa caucuses.)
One hopes that disinterested third parties are hard at work analyzing the disjunction of Internet activism with polling booths. So far, data seems scarce. NBC News cited one telling statistic: 60 percent of Iowa caucus participants said the Internet had no impact on their vote.
Without a context, it's difficult to make anything of the figure. With all the attention the Net has gotten in the presidential campaign, 60 percent seems high. But it may also speak of the Net's marginalization: One can hardly imagine 60 percent of voters saying newspaper or TV coverage had no impact on their choice.
On the other hand, Iowa is, well, Iowa. What percentage of the population is even online? What's the average time per month spent online in Iowa vs. a populous or coastal state? Extrapolating Iowa's Internet "experience" to the electorate nationwide seems perilous at best. Think of comparing Eastern Washington Internet usage with King County.
Just as it seems obvious that too much can be made of the Internet's role in electoral politics, it's safe to say particularly after Iowa that too little can be concluded as well. For all the years of expectations regarding the Internet's populist power (I plead guilty here), online campaigning is still in its infancy. For longtime tech-watchers, the fact the Net has even been a topic of discussion in the campaign is a huge leap forward.
Just days before the Iowa primary, one of those new "why didn't this happen earlier?" wrinkles got added to the Dean camp. Blogging pioneer Dave Winer, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center, created Channel Dean, an RSS-based news-feed service on the Dean candidacy. It's yet another marvelous tool for mobilizing a constituency, but the concept will barely be field-tested by the time the Democratic primaries are over.
When the Democrats get done duking it out, an intriguing juxtaposition of Internet allegiances may emerge by November's general election. George W. Bush, it is said, does not "do" e-mail, let alone blog. The degree to which he becomes an Internet convert big, small, not at all may say more about the Net's true political prowess than anything the already persuaded Democrats do.
In any case, the "Internet factor" having asserted itself early has found its trial by fire in the 2004 presidential campaign.
Paul Andrews is a freelance technology writer and co-author of "Gates." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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