In 1996, David D’Alessio began a research project regarding political campaigns that used the web to gain name recognition, converts, or to provide a forum where constituents could learn about the candidate, ask questions, or chat with other like-minded voters.
The use of the Internet by politicians had begun to take hold. That year, eight of the nine presidential candidates boasted websites. The ninth, Howard Phillips, eschewed the idea.
Only about half the candidates for Senate, however, and less than a quarter of competitors for the House of Representatives had a web presence.
D’Alessio, an associate professor of communication sciences at the Stamford Campus, wanted to find out more about who was using the web – which political party they represented, for what office they were running, and what success they had.
D’Alessio is now contemplating the end of his research project.
“By 2006, or 2010 at the latest, everybody will have a website,” he says. “The only way the web won’t be 100 percent saturated will be if the web is supplanted by another medium.”
For local elections, however, such as those taking place this month, websites don’t make much sense, D’Alessio says.
“The smaller the electorate, the more your hits are not coming from constituents,” he says. “And any time you invest in reading correspondence from, or responding to people who can’t vote for you is time taken away from your real campaign.”
In fact, D’Alessio says, his research has shown that a web presence isn’t much of an advantage in national elections either, a theory he will continue to test next year.
“At the House level in 1996, weeding out the control factors, we found that having a website was worth about 9,000 votes– not much, considering the number of votes usually cast in races for Congress. By the 2002 elections, that number had fallen to about 5,000 votes,” he says.
D’Alessio’s work indicated that, during the 2002 elections, having a web presence affected no more than 12 races out of 435.
“The importance of a website has been greatly exaggerated,” he says. “In close races it’s become almost a defensive tactic – if you don’t have one, people wonder why,” but having a site earns a shrug.
“A number of analysts said Jesse Ventura (who became governor of Minnesota in 1998) and Ross Perot (a presidential candidate in 1996) gained votes because they had websites,” D’Alessio says, “but really, in both cases, it was grassroots support – not the web – that carried their campaigns.”