Cyberspace trendy tool for political campaigns

by Max Rust

Gov. Jesse Ventura hasn’t warmed up to the Internet. He doesn’t know much about high-tech gadgets and readily deems himself “computer illiterate.”
What Ventura does know is that he wouldn’t be governor without his Web site.
Standing before a packed downtown Minneapolis ballroom Wednesday, Ventura put his limited computer skills to the test.
In a late, 90s-style town hall meeting, Ventura conversed with the 700 business leaders in the room, as well as more than 1,000 people nationwide following the action live on their computer screens.
Following a trend set last month by President Clinton, Ventura was “cyber-speaking,” one of several new ways government officials are using technology to promote themselves and keep in touch with the public.
For someone so foreign to the online world, the governor took a bold step during an hour-long address as he fielded questions from online participants.
The Internet is altering how politicians do business. From generating campaign dollars to courting young voters, it is fast becoming the tool of choice for political types trying to build names for themselves.
“The Internet was extremely important to me,” Ventura said in an interview Monday. “We exploited the computer and the Web site very strongly.”
Ventura’s gubernatorial victory was attributed to unusually high voter turnout among young people, a demographic the governor said he wouldn’t have captured without the Web.
Since the victory, Ventura’s online team has been thrown into the spotlight, gaining national press attention and lecturing assemblies at Harvard and other East Coast venues.
Ventura was dubbed the “unlikely father of electronic democracy” by the Independent, a major London newspaper.
Despite his administration’s extensive Internet use, Ventura — who never learned how to type — is still a novice when it comes to surfing the Net and “chatting” online.
“When they get a computer that you simply talk to, then I’ll be very into it,” he said. “But see, when you never learn how to type, you can still do pretty good at it, but you can’t hold the good conversations in the chat rooms because you’re very illiterate. It takes me too long to type a message out.”
Luckily, the governor didn’t need to type anything Wednesday.
Like Clinton’s meeting, Ventura’s image and voice were streamed live to the Web site that meeting participants logged on to.
Unlike the president’s virtual meeting, cyber-attendees interacted with the governor and his staff, asking for the administration’s opinions on discussion topics.
Ventura answered 13 questions ranging from his unicameral legislature proposal to how he would react if the Twin Cities were faced with the massive World Trade Organization protest in Seattle.
Only one question surfaced relating to his personal life: Did media coverage of his personal beliefs hinder his ability to govern?
After his meeting, Clinton took heat from editorialists nationwide because the questions thrown at him were screened, resulting in an overwhelming number of soft questions.
Though Ventura said he would prefer to receive unscreened questions, Ken Darling, an event organizer with Express Interactive Solutions, said he made a “decision not to ask anything that’s not relevant to (Ventura’s) role as governor.”
Darling said the technology has attracted other public officials who would like to set up similar events.
But the Web will not necessarily attract huge masses of voters, said Steven Smith, a University political science professor.
“It’s sort of like Bill Clinton going on MTV in 1992 — there’s a novelty effect,” Smith said. “When new means of communication are invented, politicians jump at the opportunity to be among the first to exploit them. But in terms of the numbers of people affected, it’s quite small.”
Smith said few people participate in electronic town hall meetings because they don’t have Internet access. Plus, there are many other popular ways to obtain information about candidates.
According to International Data Corps, a Massachusetts market research firm, 81 million Americans use the Web, far below the number reached by TV and radio.
Until Internet usage picks up, online campaigning won’t play a crucial role in elections.
Electronic democracy
Though political participation on the Internet is still developing, many proponents of e-politics advocate an emerging form of government known as “electronic democracy,” or voting online.
Still in preliminary stages, proponents hope the concept will increase political participation and voter turnout.
Although no government system is based on electronic democracy, the concept has been put to the test on smaller scales.
At the University, students had the opportunity to vote for Minnesota Student Association candidates online, resulting in a record number of voting participants.
However, Smith said before online voting can achieve widespread acceptance, Internet security measures have to be tightened to prevent voter fraud. There must also be universal access to the Web.
Ventura agreed, noting the Internet is prone to such problems.
“That’s the one downside to the computer,” Ventura said. “You have to be a judge of whether the information you’re getting is accurate.”
He hinted that other forms of the media are susceptible to similar pitfalls.
“But then again, it may be that way with books too. After all, most books say Lee Harvey Oswald killed president Kennedy. I’m not particularly sure that’s accurate.”

Max Rust covers the community and welcomes comments at [email protected]