Web hits US election jackpot

The US presidential candidates aren't the only ones who've gone in and out of favour at the drop of a hat this election season

The Internet itself has gone from being a promising political sensation to a blip on the campaign radar screen in the past year. Now it looks like it's back again, thanks to the closest presidential race in history.

Just a year ago, pundits declared that election 2000 would mark the Internet's coming of age. In the same way the Nixon-Kennedy debates elevated the profile of television in 1960, many Web pundits breathlessly predicted that the world would turn to the Internet in 2000. Voters would click their way through pages of political information. Couch potatoes would drop their remotes and pick up their mice.

Not so, it turned out. Instead, the Web looked for a while like it might fall flat. The presidential candidates took months to consider Web advertising, Internet fundraising accounted for only a sliver of the cash collected during the races, traffic to many news Web pages actually declined during the conventions, and much-hyped sites such as Politics.com and Psuedo.com crashed and burned before many people even thought of perusing their voting pamphlets.

But the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the presidential race results could raise the profile of the Web once again, truly making this the "Internet Election". Adam Powell, vice president for technology and programs at The Freedom Forum, said the Web's timing couldn't be better. And Thursday, when the results of the Florida recount are expected to be announced, there will be a moment when "one piece of information will be released that everybody in the country has an interest in," Powell said.

Most people will be at work, sitting in front of computer terminals. "We saw last night that there were huge numbers, even when most people were sitting at home," Powell said. "Imagine what will happen tomorrow when Florida releases these numbers. Tomorrow afternoon could be a watershed moment."

So far, the Web is getting mixed results. The Florida Department of State's page announcing results was knocked off the Web. Instead, viewers were directed to a statement that the recount was on, and results are expected perhaps as soon as Thursday. The Matt Drudge Report Web site has been inaccessible for at least 24 hours.

But other Web sites have been setting records. CNN is estimating 75 million page views, breaking the old record of 40 million. ABCNews.com had 23 million page views, doubling its old record, set when the Ken Starr report was released.

Bernard Gershon, senior vice president and general manager of ABCNews.com said people are now accustomed to getting news tailored specifically to their needs, something that can only be done via the Web. "Whether or not the race is close, people are really looking for information that's immediate and on their schedule," he said.

Gershon said the Web is perfectly suited for political news because there are so many ways to slice and dice information. A voter can go to the same site to get the results of a high-profile national Senate race or an obscure slow-growth measure on a city ballot. "I think political stories do well because they are rich in data," he said. "I really think that this was a watershed year for the Internet. The Internet did not flame out."

Still, Michael Cornfield, who teaches at George Washington University and directs the Democracy Online project, calls the Internet a mere "footnote" this election season. Although the Web became a more respected source of news -- especially news that breaks during the day when most people don't have easy access to a television -- its impact on the actual campaigns has been minimal.

Neither Bush nor Gore mentioned their Web sites during convention speeches or debates, and most campaigns used the Internet mainly to mirror offline activities such as posting position papers and asking for money. "We all hyped the Internet, and what the Internet could do," he said. "It didn't develop as fast or as far as people thought it would."

Cornfield said the most interesting Web phenomenon was the emergence of the "Nader trader" sites, which allowed people in states favouring Gore to promise a vote for Nader if someone in a swing state would vote Gore in return. He said those sites let real people act like lobbyists, trading votes for favours, in the same way it's done every day on Capitol Hill. However, the sites have run afoul of election laws in several states.

Even sites that saw traffic jump exponentially in the past few days say the undecided results are fueling people's hunger for information. Yahoo!'s traffic on Tuesday was seven times what it usually experiences on a busy news day, and the site also set records on Wednesday, said Kourosh Karimkhany, senior producer of Yahoo! News.

In the 1996 election, when the race wasn't close, "there wasn't this suspense, this minute-by-minute, click-by-click persistence," he said. "This is the first time, and perhaps, the last time, if this is a shared news moment on the Web."

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