Yes and no. Two thousand marks the first election year in which the majority of Americans (and the great majority of voters) can access the Web. It is having a noticeable impact on fund-raising: In the past month we've seen Steve Forbes use a mass e-mail campaign to garner 30 percent of the vote in Iowa and John McCain leverage his New Hampshire primary victory into a windfall of online donations. But the Web has yet to prove itself as either a purveyor of ideas or an organizing medium.
There's some evidence that it's already made the democratic process more inclusive consider that of the $810,000 that flowed into John McCain's web site in the first 48 hours following his New Hampshire win, 40 percent came from first-time campaign donors. Further, voter registration among college-age citizens is rising faster than it has in decades. For years the public complained that the registration process was too complicated, but now groups such as Rock the Vote which is linked to many pop culture web sites, including those of musical groups mail voter registration materials to those who fill out a simple online form. The fruit of these efforts can already be felt, as the New Hampshire primaries saw record turnouts.
But evidence of the Web's growing financial clout remains primarily anecdotal, as the numbers are hard to come by. Since most online donations are relatively small, and the FEC doesn't itemize the sources of donations under $200, nobody's been able to reliably track what percentage of this year's contributions has come online. "I think the Web is having an impact, but not a decisive one," says TIME Washington correspondent Matthew Cooper. "It's proved a way to get people to instantaneously react to a message they like and contribute to a campaign, as we learned from John McCain's win in New Hampshire. But it has yet to prove itself as a way of getting a message out."
This much is clear every major presidential candidate this year is taking the Web seriously. Steve Forbes, for example, plans to have investd a million dollars in his site by the Republican National Convention in June. "While we're not sure how big of an impact the Internet will have, it has clearly already revolutionized campaigning," says Sheila Krumholz, research director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group. "Candidates have moved quickly to tailor the messages on their sites to a whole host of voters. George W. Bush, for example, as he targets Latino voters, can have a page in Spanish. When people surf the Web looking for Spanish-language political sites, they'll get Bush's message." Even more important, notes Krumholz, is the power the Web gives upstart campaigns. While conventional mass mailings have limited appeal they cost, on average, $.75 for each dollar raised and telephone campaigns require huge numbers of volunteers to man the phones, e-mails and web postings are virtually free and require few man hours.
The year 2000 will probably be remembered more as the year when candidates experimented with the Web, rather than when they first staked their campaigns on it. Web surfers are currently being inundated with a variety of aesthetics and gadgets. George W. Bush has a sleek but simple site that features a calculator that allows visitors to figure how much they'd save on their tax bill under his tax cut proposal. That idea was lifted from www.forbes2000.com, and Steve Forbes' site is easily the most innovative. A cluster of buttons on the home page invites users to get involved in "e-precincts." Through this concept, Forbes has volunteers take responsibility for peppering a particular constituency with targeted e-mails. This way, any time a major event happens on an issue, Forbes can immediately get his message out to voters who've showed an interest in that topic. This tack worked in Iowa, where Forbes followed each debate and campaign appearance Bush made with a rebuttal on issues of concern to the states various regions.
The big question right now is how much an effective web site can compensate for a lack of campaign infrastructure. John McCain took New Hampshire by spending months there, attending scores of town hall meetings and shaking thousands of hands. But McCain, unlike Bush, doesn't have a national campaign infrastructure, and certainly doesn't have time to kiss babies in every county across the land. He won't even have time to visit half of the 26 states that hold primaries between March 7 and March 14. "The Web is crucial to McCain," says Krumholz. "Typically his contributions aren't the $500 and $1,000 Bush is getting, they're smaller, which is why he needs to get out and reach more people." To this end, McCain's testing several online innovations. Next week, for example, he'll host a $250-per-user online discussion. "For someone like McCain, who needs to reach a lot of people quickly, there's nothing like a web site," says Krumholz. "It's both detached and instant. You can be there 24 hours a day, connecting with people across the country. But at the same time, there's a lack of the human touch that you get by campaigning in person."
Figuring out just how much that human touch is missed will provide plenty of fodder for pollsters and campaign managers for the next four years. Cybercampaigning is still a crude art form, and the Class of 2000 candidates are pioneers. In the coming years you can expect every aspect of this year's online results to be dissected and examined. The ideas that work will be adopted widely by future candidates; the ones that don't will be forgotten just like yesterday's candidates.