Reaching Publics on the Web During the 1996 Presidential Campaign
Carol Anne McKeown
Kenneth D. Plowman
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
San Jose State University
One Washington Square
San Jose, CA 95192-0055
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This case study explored how the 1996 Democrat and Republican parties'
presidential candidates used the World Wide Web to communicate to voters during
the general election.
The study found that the campaigns were able to present more in-depth issue
information through this new communication medium than traditional medial
channels. Results also indicated that the campaigns did not use this new
technology to increase interaction between voters and candidates.
Reaching Publics on the Web During the 1996 Presidential Campaign
Rapid advances in technology continue to have an impact on many aspects of
our society. One area in which these advances are having an effect is
communication technologies, specifically new media technologies. These changes
affect how organizations reach their intended audiences by increasing the number
of media available for communication. One emerging communication vehicle is the
World Wide Web, which is made up of individual graphical publishing sites on the
Internet. An advantage of these sites for the user is that their access does
not require knowledge of complex programming languages or command structures,
resulting in relatively easy access.
Although it is unknown how the World Wide Web may change modes of
communication for organizations, this emerging technology continues to be a
focus in the national media. Negroponte (1995) predicted that this is just the
beginning of a radical change in how Americans access information. His
prediction of a move away from a "push" distribution of information, in which
organizations distribute information through mass media channels, to a "pull"
distribution, in which individuals access only the information that interests
them; relies on the existence of an active audience (J. Grunig, 1982). The
World Wide Web is the first "pull" communication medium with both interactivity
and graphical impact, and may be the start of the trend towards this change in
communication predicted by Negroponte. It presents an opportunity for
organizations to experiment with this new approach to communication and to learn
how to use it to reach their audiences.
Purpose of Study
1996 Presidential Campaign
Specifically, this study hoped to answer the question, "How are
presidential candidates using the World Wide Web to increase the level of
interactivity between the candidate and voters?" Through an analysis of how
this communication medium was used during the 1996 presidential election
campaign, the researcher intended to show how candidates used this format to
inform voters about their qualifications and issue positions. By comparing how
candidates used this medium to Dozier, L. Gruning, and J. Grunig's (1995) mixed
motive model of public relations and Grunig's (1982) situational theory, the
researcher explored the question of how political candidates can use this new
communication medium to involve voters in their respective campaigns.
This study specifically focused on how the 1996 Democrat and Republican
parties' presidential candidates used the World Wide Web for communication of
their messages to voters. This is an important area to research for three
reasons: (a) this is the first time candidates have used this medium to
communicate to their voters; (b) presidential campaigns face a difficult
communication task, since they must get their message out to a diverse
collection of voters; (c) and the Web may provide a way to increase
interactivity between voters and candidates. It was beyond the scope of this
study to consider how candidates used other media for message delivery during
this time period.
Current research on existing technology has focused specifically on the
effects of television on political campaigns (Joslyn, 1990; Kerbel, 1994;
Mickelson, 1989; Rosenstiel, 1993). The literature in this area suggests that
television news has created a mediated, entertainment climate for campaigns that
does not address voters' needs for information about the candidates and the
issues. Second, this study drew from existing studies to define what
information voters require to make their decision about the candidates (Dalton &
Wattenberg, 1993; Graber, 1988; Popkin, 1994). By understanding what
information voters are seeking, and how current communication media do not meet
those needs, candidates can utilize this new medium as a way to address in-depth
Finally, by building on two public relations theories, this study hoped to
propose a way for presidential candidates to raise the level of involvement
voters have in the campaign process. The first theory is J. Grunig's (1982)
situational theory, which defined the information gathering process people use
when making a decision about an issue. Through the application of this theory,
candidates can understand that voters who are actively seeking information about
candidates are accessing the Web sites, and that voters who perceive a level of
personal involvement with the campaign are more likely to act on that
information. Second, Dozier et al.'s (1995) mixed motive model of public
relations demonstrated two different types of communications models that
political campaigns can practice. These are the two-way asymmetrical and
symmetrical models of public relations. The two-way asymmetrical model of
communication was defined as using research and feedback from an audience to
change behavior. In the two-way symmetrical model of communication, both the
organization and the public communicate on an issue to reach a compromise
approach. By combining these two models into the mixed motive model, Dozier et
al. proposed that practitioners needed to combine these models to reach an
equilibrium between an organization and its publics. While campaigns
traditionally use the two-way asymmetrical model of communications, when they
incorporate the two-way symmetrical model they can achieve more of what they
want by meeting voters' need for information.
Overview of Methods
The qualitative case study was the method chosen for this research.
Through this qualitative method, the researcher was able to explore in-depth how
the 1996 Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns used this new
communication medium (Yin, 1994). The case study method was chosen because it
allows for the review of data from several different angles. Second, it
provided a framework for analysis through pattern-matching across different data
collected during the research period.
Using this qualitative case study method, this research analyzed the intent
of the communications between the candidates and the voters on Web sites for
both the 1996 Democratic and Republican candidates for president. Data
collected included interviews with appropriate campaign staff involved in the
set-up and maintenance of each Web site. Documentation from each campaign,
including, but not limited to, the original proposal for each Web site, were
used as corroboration for the interviews. Finally, direct observation of each
Web site during the campaign was analyzed for latent content concerning the
interactivity initiated between the campaigns and voters.
New media technologies continually have an effect on how political
communication is practiced. Television and new personal media technologies have
allowed candidates to communicate directly with their publics. The newest
medium, the World Wide Web, may have additional impact on the 1996 presidential
By understanding how voters make decisions and what information they use to
make voting choices, candidates gain insight into the use of the World Wide Web
for communication (Bennett, 1992; Graber, 1988; J. Grunig, 1982; Popkin, 1994).
In addition, by understanding what types of communication between organizations
and their publics are effective, candidates can use this new communication
medium in a way that encourages publics to vote.
Background of Study
Television. With the advent of new technologies, political campaigns have
changed how they reach their publics. The introduction of television as a mass
medium in the 1950s allowed presidential candidates to reach their publics more
directly instead of communicating through established channels of local party
members (Kerbel, 1994; Marshall, 1983). Television allowed presidential
candidates to reach the nation without traveling. Through political
advertisements and the evening news, candidates could speak directly to their
publics. Although their messages had to go through the filter of the media, or
fit into the format of a timed commercial, the opportunity to get the message
out was expanded.
World Wide Web. The newest media technology is the World Wide Web. The
ability for individuals to connect to other computers and other individuals,
ignoring distance, has created an opportunity for individuals to interact
outside their local community. This expansion of the local community to a
global community through the use of the personal computer has the potential of
having great impact on national elections. Just as television's impact was
unknown before it was widely adopted as the primary news source for most
Americans, the effects of the World Wide Web are still unknown.
The World Wide Web was first used for political campaigns in 1994 (Carl,
1995). Carl critiqued former New York Governor Mario Cuomo's 1994 home page.
Noting that a strong presence on the Web does not guarantee victory, Carl
discussed why Cuomo's page was nonetheless effective. Using hyperlinked
categories, Cuomo broke down issues into specific categories. In addition,
Cuomo's page featured a map of the state of New York which "allowed visitors to
click on a particular region or city and receive a detailed summary of Cuomo's
work in that area" (Carl, p. 57).
Although voters' use of the World Wide Web to gather information for voting
decisions is difficult to track, candidates who want to communicate to this
audience have an inexpensive and interactive way to do so on the Web. Browning
(1995) stated that the audience on the Web is the one candidates want to reach:
affluent, younger voters who are vitally interested in politics. He described
the audience on the World Wide Web as "the voters that anyone planning to hit
the campaign trail . . . wants to attract" (Browning, 1995, p. 794). Rubel
(1995) stated that "the Web sites are geared towards new and younger voters who
are less likely to receive their information from newspapers, TV and radio" (p.
6). The Web audience appears to be the one candidates are interested in
reaching; people who do not use traditional media for campaign information.
For the 1996 presidential campaign, the Web offered candidates a new tool
for reaching voters. Betts (1995) stated that the World Wide Web is "fast
becoming a new weapon for politicos as well as a battleground for next year's
elections" (p. 1). Holdren (1995) noted that in the 1992 presidential
elections, voters looked for information unfiltered by the traditional mass
media, using examples of Jerry Brown's 800- number and Ross Perot's grass-roots
campaign techniques, as well as jammed phone lines during talk shows featuring
presidential candidates, Holdren demonstrated that voters searched for new ways
to learn about candidates. She defined four areas where the World Wide Web
excels as a media for political campaigns. First is the low cost of entry into
the media, as opposed to television advertising. Second, costs associated with
the Web do not increase with the number of people reached. Third, the format is
interactive, so candidates can involve voters in the process. Fourth, natural
communities of interest about campaigns already exist on the Web. Additional
advantages for candidates in setting up Web sites are: an interactive campaign
headquarters that can be accessed anytime by anyone with a modem (Coates, 1995);
an inexpensive, direct way to engage in two-way communication with voters
(Powers, 1994); and television-like graphics at a fraction of the cost
(Browning, 1995). Diamond and Geller (1995) stated that costs for a 30-second
spot in a major television market can run up to $50,000; for the same amount of
money a candidate can hire a contractor to build a Web site for a whole year.
Although the World Wide Web appears to be an ideal format for presidential
candidates, there are disadvantages. Balz (1995) noted that the disadvantages
include: slow transmission time for extensive graphics, and a candidate's
ability to structure the information to benefit his or her message. Using this
new format is charting unknown territory in communications. The result, as Carl
(1995) stated, is that currently most Web pages are only "glorified campaign
brochures" (p. 56), and do not take advantage of this new medium.
How can candidates use the World Wide Web to their best advantage? To
fully understand this issue, it is necessary to look at several areas of
research. These are the effects literature on existing technologies; how voters
use information to make their voting decisions; and the concept of two-way
Technology Issues In Campaign Coverage
Television. Those who research the effects of television on political
campaigns have focused on several issues. Operating under economic constraints
to show a profit, television news stations battle between ratings and
responsible news coverage (Rosenstiel, 1993). This entertainment apsect of
television converts elections into horse races (Kerbel, 1994; Marshall, 1983;
Mickelson, 1989), and results in reporters covering the "why" aspect of a story,
instead of the "what" apsect (Robinson & Sheehan, 1983; Rosentiel, 1993).
Effects of technology on campaigns. The effects of technology on
presidential campaigns are twofold: a contribution to the decline of the power
of political parties; and instantaneous coverage. Some researchers claimed that
television was the cause of the decline of the party system, while others stated
that this was a by-product resulting from other campaign reforms. Marshall
(1983) stated that media's increased impact "has been an unintended byproduct of
recent reforms: party rules changes, increasing numbers of primaries and openly
contested caucuses, and new fund-raising and spending regulations" (p. 64).
Kerbel (1994) argued that the decline of political parties was caused by the
twin trends of primaries becoming the ground for choosing party candidates and
the resulting increase of impact that television had on this process.
Benjamin (1982) cited the changes in technology as hastening the decline in
power of the political parties, as candidates have more avenues to reach the
voters directly. He calls this process "disintermediation and nationalization
(or at least delocalization) of American politics" (p. 4). Gronbeck (1990)
described current presidential elections as reaching voters directly with direct
mail campaigns for funding and message delivery.
Another effect of technology was the increased speed at which coverage of
events could be aired. Leaving little time for reflection, television news not
only shows the event, but also analyzes it live. Rosenstiel (1993) noted that
technology lowered the standards of journalism. He observed that television
coverage of the national conventions allowed no time for planning. The
available technology made it possible to have instantaneous coverage, allowing
little time for reflection.
During the most recent presidential election, candidates used new
technologies to aid in disseminating their message. Myers (1993) outlined five
tactical and strategic goals for new media technologies used by the 1992 Clinton
campaign. These were (a) rapid response to any attack by opponents; (b) use of
specific news outlets to reach targeted voters; (c) use of interactive
satellite, telephone, and computer communications to have Clinton appear
electronically; (d) communicate a complete picture of the candidate by utilizing
longer format media; and (e) a combination of new technologies and surrogate
These researchers identified where television and technology produce
mediated coverage that focus on the entertainment, the horse-race aspect of
campaigns, without time for adequate or knowledgeable analysis. In addition,
candidates have gained more control of their messages by avoiding traditional
party communications channels and reaching their audiences directly.
The results of increased technology in mass media communications has been
an acceleration of the transition from event to news, leaving little time for
reflection. In addition, television news' focus on entertainment left voters
without the information they felt they needed to make decisions about the
candidates (Kerbel, 1994). This resulted in the trend during the 1992
presidential elections of voters looking for new ways to interact with
candidates, such as call-in talk shows and town hall meetings.
Campaign Communication Techniques
How should presidential candidates communicate to their voters? Through
understanding that voters require many different types of information to make
their decision and by combining two public relations theories: Grunig's (1982)
situational theory and the Dozier et al.'s (1995) mixed motive model of public
relations with traditional campaign communication techniques, candidates can
better understand who is accessing their Web site, as well as what information
to include and how to present it with new media technologies such as the World
Situational theory. The situational theory of publics was developed by J.
Grunig (1982) to explain how people react differently to communication messages
depending on their involvement with a particular issue. The theory defined
three characteristics that affect how publics react to issues: problem
recognition, involvement, and constraint recognition. Problem recognition is
defined as a public's understanding of uncertainty about an event. For example,
if a political campaign is characterized as "too close to call" by the press,
voters would know that the outcome was uncertain. Involvement is defined as the
public's cognitive perception of an issue (J. Grunig & Repper, 1992).
Involvement is the perception of personal connection to an event. For an
individual to feel involvement in an event, the outcome of an event must be
perceived to relate directly to that individual's life. Finally, constraint
recognition is defined as the belief that an individual's actions will have no
effect on the outcome of a specific event. In a political campaign, if voters
perceive that their vote will have no effect on the decision, they have high
These characteristics also influence a number of dependent variables
concerning the public's actions: information-seeking, message processing and
retention, attitude formation, and behavioral responses. From these
characteristics and variables, Grunig (1982) defined three types of publics: (a)
latent publics, those who are low in problem recognition and involvement; (b)
aware publics, those who are high in problem recognition, but vary on
involvement and constraint recognition; and (c) active publics, those who are
high in problem recognition and involvement, and low in constraint recognition.
In 1984, J. Grunig and Hunt added a fourth public, non-publics. Non-publics
were characterized as having low involvement and high constraint recognition.
These publics were defined as having no interest in the issue.
Political communicators target specific groups as audiences for campaigns.
First, campaigns identify who voted in the last election, and therefore are
likely to go to the polls. Second, campaigns target within this group voters
who already support the candidate, and the group of voters who are undecided
(Bradshaw, 1995; Schwartzman, 1989; Sweeney, 1995). Campaigns do not target
their messages to voters already committed to voting for the opposition, as this
is perceived as a waste of resources. Candidates focus on the states with the
largest number of electoral votes, and those states that polling indicates are
close or undecided. By targeting the voters in these swing states, candidates
can best utilize their limited amount of funds.
Under the situational theory, both committed and undecided voters who voted
in the last election may be either aware or active publics. From the
candidate's perspective, it is important to motivate decided aware voters into
active voters by going to the polls. Undecided voters, defined as aware voters
by the situational theory, must develop higher levels of involvement in the
outcome of the election to become motivated to vote. However, in addition to
raising undecided voters' level of involvement, candidates must also persuade
these voters that they are the right choice. Campaigns try to achieve this end
by differentiating themselves from their competition through their campaign
message, and engaging in get out the vote activities (Salmore & Salmore, 1989;
Understanding the situational theory and campaign techniques is important
in helping candidates identify who might be accessing their Web pages. As
defined earlier, the Web is a "pull" communication, and requires action by a
voter for access. According to the situational theory, latent publics who have
low involvement with the issues will not be visitors. Aware publics who are
high in problem recognition may access the page for more information depending
on their involvement in the issues and their constraint recognition. Active
publics who are high in problem recognition and involvement are most likely to
seek out candidates' Web pages. They are actively seeking information about
candidates, and feel that actions they take can make a difference. Candidates
should not, however, overlook the portion of the audience that is aware, with
low constraint recognition and high involvement. These publics are likely to be
aware of the issues, but may still be undecided voters. They comprise a
critical portion of the voting population that candidates want to reach. In
understanding situational theory, combined with traditional campaign techniques,
it can be predicted that visitors to Web sites will be audiences that campaigns
will want to communicate to: active and aware voters who may or may not have
made voting decisions.
Popkin's (1994) and Bennett's (1992) criticisms of the existing political
campaign system because of its low voter involvement, builds on J. Grunig's
(1982) theory of information processing. Since voters who feel a high level of
involvement in the campaign are more likely to seek information on an issue, it
is critical for candidates to involve voters in the campaign. By demonstrating
how campaigns affect voters' lives at an individual level, and involving voters
interactively, campaign communicators can turn aware publics into active
Understanding who is accessing the Web site, however, is only a part of the
picture. In addition, candidates must also consider how to present their
information to help aid voters in making their decisions about a candidate.
Popkin's (1994) claim, that interactivity with candidates raises voters'
connection to the election process and motivates them to vote, suggests that two
models of public relations may provide an answer.
In 1984, J. Grunig and Hunt defined four models of public relations,
drawing on how public relations was practiced currently and historically. J.
Grunig and L. Grunig (1992) further explored the models to define a normative
theory of how public relations should be practiced. Two of the defined models,
two-way asymmetrical and two-way symmetrical, are applicable for communication
issues confronting presidential candidates.
Two-way asymmetrical model. The two-way asymmetrical model of
communications involves both research and feedback from an audience. The
resulting communication that takes place after that research is persuasion only,
thus the effects are unbalanced. By first researching what audience attitudes
about a particular issue are, the public relations practitioner then targets the
message to influence that attitude. Using the concept of scientific persuasion,
this type of communication attempts to change behavior (J. Grunig & Hunt, 1984).
This model of communications is used extensively in political campaigns
through research and polling. Campaigns rely heavily on research to decide
whether to enter a race, to understand what groups to appeal to, and which
themes to use (Salmore & Salmore, 1989; Schwartzman, 1989). By doing so,
successful candidates "move and motivate voters, (by) start(ing) where they are,
not where you are" (Bradshaw, 1995, p. 45).
Two-way symmetrical model. In addition, J. Grunig and Hunt (1984) posited
the concept of two-way symmetrical communication. J. Grunig and L. Grunig
(1992) further developed this model by suggesting it is the only ethical
approach to public relations. In this approach, both the organization and the
public communicate on an issue, and a compromise approach is reached. The
concepts of win-win negotiations and game theory are used in this model, where
both sides feel that they have won on some issues and reached a fair compromise
on others. Research indicates that when both sides are involved in issue
resolution, involvement in the decision process alone gains support from the
publics (Heath & Douglas, 1990). Understanding the process involved in the
action, and gaining a sense of involvement in the issue help people work
collectively to solve the problem. The understanding of why the decisions were
made, as well as being a participant in that decision process, are the keys to
successful resolution of particular issues or problems.
Mixed motives. Dozier et al. (1995) proposed that for excellent
communication, practitioners need to use both the asymmetrical and symmetrical
models of public relations. Symmetrical communication, they argued, "provides a
framework for ethical communication practices" (p. 47). Yet asymmetrical
communication practices played an important role in the research they did on
excellent communication departments. Dozier et al. (1995) concluded that
excellent communicators do try to convince publics that their organization holds
the correct view on an issue. This leads to the mixed motive model of public
relations, in which both two-way symmetrical and asymmetrical practices are used
to achieve an equilibrium between the desired outcomes of both the organization
and its publics.
Political applications. Researchers in political communication theory
characterize it as a negotiation process. Gronbeck (1990) described political
communication as arenas of confrontation between symbols created by the
candidates and symbols believed by the voters. Politics, therefore, is a
continuous process of negotiation. Stuckey (1989) states, "the higher the
office in question, the more the candidate will focus on image and symbolic
appeals, and the less he will focus on substantive policy" (p. 1). Diamond,
McKay and Silverman (1993) stated that the optimists' view of the 1992 campaign
was that "the public became a part of the process, an active participant" (p.
259). As voters become involved in the process of the election, and connected
to the symbols that candidates use to describe America, they move from aware
publics to active publics. In doing so, they raise their level of involvement
and lower constraint recognition, a process which leads to the actual act of
voting. However, campaigns traditionally use the two-way asymmetric
communication model to get their message to the voters. By changing their mode
of communication to the mixed motive model, they are more likely to involve
voters in the process, thus lessening their constraint recognition. Traditional
ways for candidates to bring decided voters in campaigns include volunteering
and fundraising activities. For campaigns to motivate and shift undecided
voters, candidates may need to use other techniques such as political rallies
and direct interaction to raise levels of involvement.
Summary and Research Questions
Television and Technology. The existing literature on the effects of
television and technology on presidential campaigns indicates some of the m
edium's inabilities to meet voters' needs for information. With television's
main focus on the horse-race and entertainment aspects of the campaign, voters
may not gain the critcal issue information they need to make voting decisions.
In addition, television has built a wall between the candidates and their
audiences. There is less direct interaction between the two, perhaps resulting
in lower voter turnouts. Finally, the pace of coverage is so fast, that there
is little time for effective analysis.
There was a significant shift in this trend, however, during the 1992
election campaign. Candidates appeared in softer news formats and talk shows to
encourage direct voter interaction. Although some researchers argued that this
was not the only cause, there was an increase in voter turnout for this
election. By increasing interactivity with voters and using longer formats to
communicate in-depth plans, Clinton was able to motivate more voters to go to
the polls and vote for him. This leads to the first research question:
How are World Wide Web to get their message directly to voters, and
avoiding mediation by television news?
The reasoning voter model. Expectations of fully informed voters on every
issue that confronts the federal government is an unrealistic view of voters.
The time involved in learning about the complicated issues and deciding which
candidates support which issues is more than most voters feel is worth their
time. Voters care about issues that they perceive will affect them directly.
In addition, they have a long-term view of what is best for the country. All of
this information is integrated through the personal application of issues to a
voter's own life.
In addition, voters need to feel that their vote matters. J. Grunig's
(1982) situational theory demonstrated that lowering constraint recognition and
raising involvement of voters raises the likelihood that voters will actually go
to the polls. To create this sense of importance in each individual voter
requires some kind of interactivity between the voter and either the candidate
or the process of electing a president. Popkin (1994) questioned whether
mediated interactivity was enough. He proposed that campaign events such as
rallies and parades give voters a chance to make the leap from being involved in
the issues to actually going out to vote. He felt that this direct personal
involvement was necessary.
Current research shows that voters look for many different types of
information when making decisions about candidates. This leads to a second
research question for this study:
How are candidates using the World Wide Web to make different types of
information available to voters?
Two-way communication. Finally, Dozier et al.'s (1995) combined two-way
asymmetrical and symmetrical communications, the mixed motive model, presents a
way for candidates to interact with their audiences. Researching what voters
perceive as issues during the campaign and using that information to present a
clear plan, is a first step for clearer communications. Involving voters in how
to resolve particular issues will aid candidates by investing a sense of
ownership in voters. By being a part of the process voters are more likely to
vote, a crucial element for candidates. By understanding that involvement and
low constraint recognition helps get voters to the polls to actually vote,
candidates can use their Web sites as a way to involve voters and personally
connect them to the campaign. This leads to the third research question:
How are candidates using the World Wide Web to increase interactivity
between themselves and voters?
The Case Study Method
The research method used for this study was the qualitative case study.
Case studies provide a framework within which to understand data collected
during qualitative research. In addition, case studies have unique strengths in
that they require triangulation between multiple data sources, allow for the
analysis of current events, and are excellent in answering "how" and "why"
questions (Yin, 1994).
The case study method is well suited for the investigation of how the 1996
Republican and Democratic presidential candidates used Web sites to communicate
to their audiences for three reasons: it is a contemporary event, the research
question is a "how" question, and the researcher has no control over the event
itself. Yin (1994) stated that case studies are preferable when examining
contemporary events over which the investigator has no control. This is because
a case study allows a researcher to investigate an event as it is happening, as
opposed to a historical review of data. For these reasons, the method chosen
for this research is the case study.
Sources of Data
To improve the reliability of this study, an embedded, double case study
was done. The research observed two different approaches of presidential
campaign Web sites: the 1996 Dole/Kemp Web site and the 1996 Clinton/Gore Web
site. The research was embedded because three different types of data were
collected within each separate unit of analysis. The data collected included
in-depth interviews with each candidates' staff person responsible for the Web
site, documentation of original proposals or summaries detailing the purpose or
success of the Web site, and a daily download of the Web site itself.
The three different types of data were divided into two categories, data
that came from sources within the campaign and data that were collected
independent of the campaigns. Data that were collected from the campaigns
included two sets of interviews with the campaign staffer responsible for the
Web site and documentation created by the campaign concerning the sites.
Independent data collection included daily observations for each of the
campaigns' Web sites, and analysis of stories from both traditional and on-line
print media during the research period concerning content of the sites.
Interviews. The first type of data collection was focused interviews with
each candidate's Web managers to understand what type of communication was
intended. The researcher contacted each campaign and identified the person who
was responsible for the Web site. Initial interviews took place in late June
1996, before either campaign had its general election site available to the
public. While the Dole/Kemp campaign did have a site up and running during the
primary period, the researcher learned at the first interview with Jeff Meyers,
director of information systems, that the campaign was developing a new site for
the general election. While Meyers worked on the primary site, he did not work
on the general election site. This interview took place in person at the
Dole/Kemp headquarters, lasted for approximately an hour and a half, and was not
tape recorded. Extensive notes were taken and transcribed that evening. The
Dole/Kemp campaign Web site for the general election was unveiled on August 2,
The Clinton/Gore campaign did not have a Web site available to the public
during the primary period. The initial interview was conducted with Adam Sohn,
the director of technology for the campaign. The Clinton/Gore site was
announced on July 10, 1996 at a press conference with Vice President Al Gore.
The second round of focused interviews took place in mid-November after the
campaign had ended. Robert Arena, director of internet strategy for the
Dole/Kemp campaign, was interviewed by phone for approximately an hour and a
half. Adam Sohn, for the Clinton/Gore campaign, was also interviewed by phone
in a tape recorded interview for about an hour.
The first interviews helped define the typology used for observations
during the general election period. The questions were designed to understand
what the campaigns viewed as important to communicating to the voters. The
second round of interviews revisited the campaigns' goals and objectives for the
site. It was also used as an opportunity to understand events observed on the
site during the course of the campaign.
Campaign documentation. To improve understanding and increase the
reliability of each campaign's intent, the researcher also collected
documentation to provide additional insight and confirmation of the perceived
purpose of the communication presented on the Web site. Original documents can
increase the reliability of the research by supporting statements made during
the interviews. Specifically, each campaign was requested to provide any
original proposals concerning the design and content of the sites. If final
summaries of the Web sites were produced at the end of the campaign, these would
be analyzed as well.
The Dole/Kemp campaign provided an in-depth proposal written by Robert
Arena detailing what should be included on the site. This proposal was released
to the researcher after the campaign had ended. The Clinton/Gore campaign did
not produce a formal written proposal for the site. Three memos were released
detailing the process for determining who would be hired to design the site, as
well as hosting issues. One memo concerning content was also released. These
documents were released at the initial interview in June. Although Sohn stated
that he was working on a summary at the end of campaign, the researcher was
unable to obtain a copy of it.
Observation of Web sites. The first method of independent data collection
was daily observation of the actual Web sites during the general election
period. This data collection provided an independent confirmation of whether
the campaigns actually implemented what the interviews and documentation
suggested. Each site was analyzed according to the predicted patterns developed
during the first interviews and predictions by the researcher.
After the initial print out of the sites, the researcher went back to the
sites on a daily basis and printed out only the pages that contained new
information. This was done on a daily basis, Monday through Friday, and
sometimes on the weekends as well. At the end of the research period, the
researcher again did a full print out of both sites. Due to the enormous amount
of archival material contained on the sites, the pages showing what press
releases, speeches and other material updated frequently were printed out, but
not the actual documents themselves.
These print outs were filed by date and analyzed both during the research
period to aid in conducting the final interviews with the campaigns, as well as
following all data collection.
The time period chosen for this study was the general election period of
the 1996 presidential campaign. This is defined as the time period after the
party conventions until election day (Stuckey, 1989; Watson, 1984). The
researcher started data collection on September 1, 1996, the weekend immediately
following the Democratic convention, and completed data collection on November
6, 1996, the day following the election.
Defined typology. To analyze the data collected, the researcher developed
a typology to understand what specific predicted patterns would support each of
these research questions (Lindlof, 1995). As Lindlof originally defined the
concept of typology, it is to classify aspects of a particular culture that is
being researched. Although this research was not about a particular culture, it
focused on how a specific type of people communicate. It could be argued that
the communication that is done between a candidate and his voters is a subset of
American culture. By using this typology based on existing theory in the field,
the researcher searched for empirical patterns across the three different types
of data collected for this research to match the predicted patterns.
For each research question, the researcher defined the following typology
to analyze the data collected.
I. How are candidates using the World Wide Web to get their message
directly to voters, and avoiding mediation by television news?
~ An overview of the candidate's message, and what the campaign stands
~ In-depth information on the candidates' position on issues.
~ Daily updates of the Web page to encourage voters to return often to
the page to find new information.
II. How are candidates using the World Wide Web to make different types of
information available to voters?
~ Ability to download many different types of information about the
candidate, quickly and easily.
~ Information concerning a candidates' personal history and family,
preferably in audio or video form to help establish personal characteristics.
III. How are candidates using the World Wide Web to increase interactivity
between themselves and voters?
~ Ability for people to sign up to volunteer for the campaign on-line.
~ Ability for people to donate to the campaign on-line.
~ Ability for the Web site visitor to e-mail the campaign with comments
or input and receive a response.
~ Personal appearance schedule, so voters know where candidates will be
Applying the typology. After defining the typology, the researcher
analyzed the data by dividing it into data collected through campaign sources
and data collected by independent sources. This study employed four different
stages of analysis. Under the first stage of analysis, the data set for each
campaign that was dependent on campaign sources was analyzed according to the
typology defined. The second stage of analysis consisted of reviewing the data
for each campaign collected from sources independent of the campaign against the
predicted typology. The third stage of analysis compared these findings to
determine whether the two sources of data corroborated the expected typology.
For the sake of brevity, only the third stage of analysis is addressed in this
The conclusion of this paper contains the fourth and final stage of
analysis. In this final analysis the different campaigns' findings were
compared back to the original research questions to understand if the empirical
patterns of how the campaigns actually used their Web sites corresponded to the
Findings and Discussion
Clinton/Gore Web Site
The third stage of analysis consisted of comparing the comparing the
campaign supplied and independent observations of the site to the predicted
typology to understand the empirical patterns emerging from the Clinton/Gore Web
The Clinton/Gore Web site supported the three predicted patterns defined
for the first research question of how are the candidates using the World Wide
Web to get their message directly to voters, and avoiding mediation by
televisions news. These predicted patterns were (a) an overview of the
candidates' message, and what the campaign stands for; (b) in-depth information
on the candidates' position on issues; and (c) daily updates of the Web page to
encourage voters to return often to the page to find new information. The
campaign supplied data defining the site as an extension of the campaign message
and as a place where visitors could learn about the campaign, was supported by
independent observation of the site. Through the extensive amount of
information available on the site, visitors were able to learn about the main
themes and messages of the campaign. The extensive amount of information
described by Sohn for the Briefing section, the seven issues from the State of
the Union address, and the Economic News section were all found on the site
during the observation period. The amount of information was overwhelming to
some extent, but it was still fairly easy to find the particular topics a
visitor was interested in due to clear layout of the site and the availability
of a search engine. All these findings supported the second predicted pattern
of in-depth information on the candidates' position on issues.
Sohn's statements concerning changes on the site were supported by the
independent data collected. Press releases and the Clinton/Gore Now section
changed almost daily. Other sections of the site changed weekly, and the
redesign of the site at the end of September kept the site fresh.
For the second research question, how are candidates using the World Wide
Web to make different types of information available to voters, the data
strongly supported the first predicted pattern and partially supported the
second. The first predicted pattern, ability to download many different types
of information about the candidate quickly and easily, was both supported by the
campaign supplied data and the independent observations of the site. The
extensive amount of position papers, press releases, and speech transcripts, as
well as the economic issues all supported this predicted pattern. Sohn's
emphasis on being able to link to this information both horizontally and
vertically, was demonstrated on the site by reaching different parts of the site
that discussed the same issue, without having to return to the main menu.
The second predicted pattern for the second research question, information
concerning the candidates' personal history and family, preferably in audio or
video form, to help establish personal characteristics, was only partially
supported by the Clinton/Gore site. Sohn's statements that the site would
contain biographical information was supported by the actual site. However, the
information was only presented in text format, and did not help the visitor
establish personal characteristics of the candidates.
The final research question, how are candidates using the World Wide Web to
increase interactivity between themselves and voters, was partially supported by
the first two predicted patterns. The Clinton/Gore site did have volunteer and
donation on-line forms on the site. However, the campaign supplied data
demonstrated that the volunteer information may not have been used due to
logistical problems and the date of bringing the site on-line. The donation
amount was only a small portion of the total amount collected for GELAC. The
independent observation of the difficulty of locating the donation form may have
contributed to the small amount collected.
The final two predicted patterns for the last research question were also
only partially supported. The campaign data indicated that America's Home Page
was a place for visitors to e-mail the campaign, which was confirmed by
independent observation. However, there was only partial support for this first
predicted pattern of being able to e-mail the campaign and receive a response,
since there was no response mechanism from the campaign. In addition, the
purpose of America's Home Page was to send in stories supporting the President,
not a forum for exchange of ideas.
The last predicted pattern of the personal appearance schedule, so voters
know where candidates will be in person, was not supported. The campaign
specifically stated that they would not do this due to security reasons and not
wanting to emphasize the states the campaign was specifically targeting. The
actual site also did not support the predicted pattern, although some press
releases did detail the candidates' or First Lady's schedule. To discover this
information from the site required diligence, it was not something the campaign
highlighted on the site.
Dole/Kemp Web Site
The third stage of analysis for the Dole/Kemp Web site consisted of
comparing the campaign supplied data and independent observations of the site to
the predicted typology to understand the empirical patterns emerging from this
The Dole/Kemp Web site supported the first two predicted patterns for the
first research question, how are candidates using the World Wide Web to get
their message directly to voters, and avoiding mediation by television news.
Both the campaign data and independent observations confirmed that the site
provided an overview of the campaign's message, and what it stood for. The
campaign data stated that one of the most important messages of the site was
that Bob Dole was aware of this technology and knew how to use it. The in-depth
information on the site about Bob Dole's economic, tax cut and prevent crime and
drug plans supported the second predicted pattern of in-depth information on the
candidates' position on issues. This information was confirmed by the campaign
data as well.
The third predicted pattern, daily updates to the Web site to encourage
voters to return to find new information, was only partially supported by the
data collected. While the campaign supplied data indicated the importance of
keeping the site fresh, the independent observations supported a pattern of
weekly changes as opposed to daily ones. The period of time from September 10
to 17 where there were no changes was caused by software problems, not by any
desire on the part of the campaign not to update frequently.
For the second research question, how are candidates using the World Wide
Web to make different types of information available to voters, the Dole/Kemp
site supported both predicted patterns. The first predicted pattern of being
able to download many different types of information quickly and easily was
supported by both the campaign supplied data and site observations. The
campaign voiced concerns about designing the site so that the majority of people
could access it. The second predicted pattern of providing information on a
candidates' personal history and family, preferably in audio or video format,
was also supported by both the campaign data and observation of the site.
The final research question, how are candidates using the World Wide Web to
increase interactivity between themselves and voters, was partially supported.
The first two predicted patterns of being able to volunteer and donate on-line
were supported by the Dole/Kemp site. The ease of finding where to volunteer
and donate on the site, was supported by the results achieved by the campaign.
Over one-third of all volunteers came from the site, and donations covered the
cost of the site.
The second two predicted patterns for this question were not supported.
While the site did have a place to e-mail the campaign with ratings on the issue
papers, the campaign's statements that they did not use this data demonstrated
lack of support for the first predicted pattern. The predicted pattern of
posting the candidates' personal appearance schedule was also not supported
either by campaign data or by independent observations of the site.
Summary and Conclusions
The fourth and final stage of analysis consisted of comparing the two
different campaign Web sites back to the theory represented in the original
research questions. Empirical patterns that emerged that were not predicted by
the typology are also discussed.
How are candidates using the World Wide Web to get their message directly
to voters, and avoiding mediation by television news? Research on television
news coverage of political campaigns concluded that in previous elections,
political reporting emphasized the horse race and the strategy aspects of the
campaign (Kerbel, 1994; Marshall, 1983; Mickelson, 1989; Robinson & Sheehan,
1983; Rosenstiel; 1993). The coverage focus on strategy aspects of campaigns,
researchers concluded, resulted in cynical coverage (Kerbel, 1994; Rosenstiel,
1993). In addition, the speed of coverage demanded by television allows little
time for reflection or thoughtful analysis (Linsky, 1983; Gronbeck, 1990;
Rosenstiel, 1993). This study predicted that the use of this new communication
medium, the World Wide Web, would aid the 1996 presidential candidates in
getting their message directly to voters, and avoid the cynical and horse race
coverage of television news. The medium of the Web was also predicted to
provide in-depth information during the entire campaign to allow voters to
develop their own opinions about the candidates.
This study demonstrated that both candidates were effective in using their
Web sites to avoid mediation. Voters who visited the sites had ample material
to review and determine what the campaigns stood for. Both candidates supplied
numerous position papers on specific issues that they defined as important to
communicate to voters. Neither site contained information on the horse race
aspect of the campaign, focusing instead on the issues.
As the campaign progressed, materials on both sites were updated at least
weekly, sometimes daily, to allow visitors access to new information on issues.
The archival nature of the Web also allowed visitors to review old material if
they wanted to revisit specific issues. This was effective in allowing voters
access to both current and background information at any point during the
campaign, increasing voters' ability to analyze the complex issues of the
campaign over extended periods of time. Both campaigns demonstrated this
archival pattern. While the Clinton/Gore site provided more material, the
Dole/Kemp campaign still provided ample documentation during the general
election period to support this pattern.
The Dole/Kemp campaign's opportunity to explain in great detail its
proposed economic plan, tax cuts, and its approach to fighting the battle
against crime and drugs was unprecedented. The Web site was able to supplement
traditional television news coverage by providing in-depth descriptions of these
plans. This allowed voters to read and analyze what the Dole/Kemp campaign
proposed, without the mediation of strategy coverage. Voters could focus on how
these plans might solve problems, instead of why the Dole/Kemp campaign would
propose them. The Web provided an excellent medium for the campaign to avoid
this type of mediation by television news.
The Clinton/Gore site acted similar to a news source by providing speech
transcripts and photos of events from the campaign trail on almost a daily
basis. While traditional media coverage might only include a short phrase or
soundbite of Clinton's daily campaign speech on the news, visitors to the
Clinton/Gore Web site had an opportunity to read, or perhaps listen to, the
entire speech. This direct communication of actual speeches demonstrated how
the Clinton/Gore Web site was used to avoid the analysis of traditional
television coverage. Visitors to the site were able to draw their own
conclusions about the content of these speeches and to focus on what Clinton
The Dole/Kemp site did not support this conclusion of becoming its own news
source since it did not do as many daily updates to the site. The campaign also
did not post as much material to the site, instead selecting information that
supported and was in context with the Dole/Kemp message. This may have created
a site that was less overwhelming to voters. By posting the material that
strengthened the campaign's message, the site acted less as an unfiltered news
source. However, in-depth information about the issues was provided.
All this data shows that both candidates were able to communicate in-depth
issue information to voters who visited their sites. Continuing the trend from
the 1992 election, both candidates provided more information to voters who had
access to this new communication medium. Through these sites, voters were able
to read information over the entire period of the general election, having the
time to analyze the complex issues of the 1996 presidential campaign. Both
campaigns ignored the horse race aspect of the election, using the sites to
explain what they hoped to accomplish for the country over the next four years.
These Web sites demonstrated that this new communication technology could be
effective in communicating candidates' messages directly to voters.
How are candidates using the World Wide Web to make different types of
information available to voters? This study predicted that candidates would
use their Web sites to make information available about many different issues
that were relevant to the 1996 election. It also predicted that the sites would
provide this information so voters could locate what they were interested in
quickly and easily.
The empirical patterns found for this study supported these predictions for
the sites. Both the Clinton/Gore and Dole/Kemp Web sites provided many
different types of information for voters. Both carried information on numerous
issues and presented it in different forms: text, audio, and video. In
addition, the information was shown as press releases, speeches, and issue
papers, which allowed visitors to see how the campaigns presented the
information to different audiences. For both campaigns, this predicted pattern
was demonstrated empirically by data in this study.
The sites were also clearly laid out, and information was easy to find.
The Dole/Kemp campaign focused on making the contents of its site easier to
access for all users by utilizing technology that was widely available. The
Clinton/Gore site included some new technologies that were not able to be
accessed by all users or may not have worked at all. This may have discouraged
some voters from returning to the site due to frustration with access. Both
sites, however, did present successfully many different types of information
about the issues and their candidates.
One empirical pattern that emerged during data collection that previous
research did not predict was the Dole/Kemp campaign's approach of using the
medium of the Web to communicate a message to voters. All the data collected
from the campaign indicated that the campaign believed that the site alone would
convince voters that Bob Dole and Jack Kemp understood this technology and its
implications, broadening their appeal to the voters who use this medium. This
pattern was not demonstrated by the Clinton/Gore campaign, who used their site
to augment other communication functions, and provide an overview of the entire
All the data collected supported the conclusion that both candidates did
provide many different types of information on their sites for voters to access.
By allowing voters to review the specific information they found interesting,
candidates' Web sites supported this research question. Through the many
different types of information made available, the Web sites demonstrated that
this new communication medium could be used effectively for this purpose.
How are candidates using the World Wide Web to increase interactivity
between themselves and voters? Grunig's (1982) situational theory suggests that
as voters raise their level of involvement with campaigns, they are more likely
to become active and go to the polls and vote. Through this new media
technology, the 1996 presidential candidates had an opportunity to interact with
voters in very different ways from those of traditional campaigns. By
incorporating interactivity in their Web sites, an option not available through
television, candidates had an opportunity to increase voter activity.
The data collected suggested that the campaigns did not use this technology
in new ways to encourage interaction between themselves and voters. Traditional
methods of involving voters in campaigns are by inviting them to volunteer and
donate money to the campaign. This was done by both campaigns on their Web
sites. The Dole/Kemp campaign was more successful in this than the Clinton/Gore
campaign for a number of reasons. Its experience through the primary season
demonstrated that the sites could be used effectively for these purposes. For
the general election campaign, donation and volunteer forms were a mouse click
away from every page on the site. The forms were easy to locate and to fill
out. In addition, data indicated that the transfer of this information from the
national office to the state offices went smoothly.
The Clinton/Gore site, while supporting this finding by having forms, was
not as successful in implementation. The data collected suggested that this may
have been due to difficulty of finding the forms on the site, the site was only
available during the general election period, and technical or logistical
problems in transferring the volunteer information from the national to state
These two types of involving people in campaigns do not include a two-way
symmetrical mode of communication as defined by J. Gruning and Hunt (1984).
These types of involvement benefit the campaign in aiding them to fund and staff
their campaigns, and do not support a two-way flow of information. While they
may raise involvement, and lower constraint recognition of voters, increasing
the likelihood that they will vote, campaigns did not use the sites to interact
with voters in a two-way symmetrical mode. The campaigns stayed within the
two-way asymmetrical mode of communication by involving voters in ways that
would benefit the campaign only.
None of the data collected suggested that the campaigns used their sites to
increase the interaction between the candidates and the voters using two-way
symmetrical communication practices. While political communication research
suggested that communication between candidates and voters is a process of
negotiation (Diamond et al., 1993; Gronbeck, 1990; Stuckey, 1989), neither
candidates' Web sites supported that conclusion . The Clinton/Gore site's
America's Home Page was the only example of using this new communication medium
to involve voters in the campaign in new ways. The data collected indicated
that this section was about inclusion and participation in the process, not
about increasing the interaction between Bill Clinton and Al Gore and the
visitors to their site. While inclusion and participation in the campaign
process are important, they do not demonstrate two-way symmetrical communication
One empirical pattern that emerged during the collection of campaign data
was different definitions of interactivity. The Dole/Kemp campaign data
suggested that they defined interactivity by having areas on their Web site that
visitors could either create something or learn with, as opposed to the
traditional passive reception of messages from television. This definition
resulted in activities on the Dole/Kemp Web site that encouraged visitors to
create buttons, posters, play trivia games, and calculate their tax cut. While
these type of interactive games encouraged visitors to learn about the
candidates, they did not include any exchange of information. The Clinton/Gore
campaign spoke of inclusion and participation in the campaign, citing its
America's Home Page as an example of what they considered to be interactivity.
The campaign also included what it considered traditional interactivity for Web
sites as the Dole/Kemp campaign did, including screen savers and an Electoral
College Computer. These definitions of interactivity, however, do not support
the idea of J. Gruning and Hunt's (1984) model of two-way symmetrical
The data collected indicated that campaigns did not use their sites as ways
to increase interactivity between the candidates and the voters. With the
exception of America's Home Page, the sites supported traditional methods of
involving voters in campaigns, by volunteering and donations. While America's
Home Page may have encouraged voters to participate in the campaign in a new
way, it did not support two-way symmetrical communication practices.
Contributions to Theory and Practice
This study suggested a normative theory for how presidential candidates
could use the medium of the World Wide Web to increase interaction between
themselves and voters. It provided a theoretical framework for future political
campaigns to understand possible uses of the World Wide Web and suggested how
campaigns could increase voter involvement in the campaigns, perhaps resulting
in higher voter turnout. The results showed that campaigns did not go beyond
traditional communication practices for involving voters in campaigns, but
demonstrated that this new medium could be used for increasing the amount of
in-depth information available to voters.
It also advanced the body of knowledge in public relations by combining
Grunig's (1982) situational theory and Dozier et al.'s (1995) mixed motive model
of public relations in an application to a new medium for political
communication. While these theories suggested that campaigns could use this new
communication medium to increase interaction between themselves and voters, the
data did not support this conclusion.
As the first presidential election cycle to use this new technology, this
study provided insight into how it was used by the 1996 presidential campaigns.
Through a better understanding of how this medium can help overcome existing
problems in communication technology, candidates can raise voter involvement and
aid in increasing voters' perception that their vote does have an effect.
Directions for Future Research
This qualitative case study demonstrated that 1996 Democratic and
Republican party candidates used the World Wide Web to communicate to voters.
The Web sites did offer the campaigns an opportunity to avoid the mediation of
traditional media, specifically television. By offering more in-depth and
different types of information on their sites, they were able to communicate
information that voters need to make voting decisions. As the reach of this new
technology grows, this finding may have more impact on the election process.
Since this was the first election cycle with this new technology, it was
difficult to conclude that it actually had much impact on the final results of
There were two empirical patterns that emerged during data collection that
indicate possible directions for future research. The first was the
Clinton/Gore Web site becoming its own news source by posting daily updates to
the site describing campaign activities. This can be considered a news source
function, carrying the content of an actual speech in its entirety on the Web
site. This possible broadening of the news source definition raises interesting
questions about the credibility of the source of the information. As a pull
medium as defined by Negroponte (1995), the Web allows individuals to gather
information from many different sources besides the traditional mass media. By
understanding whether candidates are developing credibility under traditional
news organization models, researchers could gain additional insight into the new
communication medium of the World Wide Web.
A second empirical pattern that emerged under the second research question
is the Dole/Kemp campaign suggesting that the Web site itself was a message to
voters. The campaign focused on the importance of having a site to demonstrate
that Bob Dole and Jack Kemp were aware of this new technology and were able to
use it effectively during their campaign. This idea of the medium communicating
a message to voters that Bob Dole is current with technology trends was not
explored in this case study.
Finally, this research concluded that the campaigns did not use their sites
to increase interaction between voters and candidates under the mixed motive
model of communication (Dozier et al., 1994). While they used their sites under
the two-way asymmetrical model to increase interactivity through donations and
volunteerism, they did not incorporate two-way symmetrical forms of
communication. In addition, they did not aid voters in seeing the candidates or
surrogates in person. These conclusions suggest that another direction of
future research is why the campaigns do not practice the two-way symmetrical
communication model. As the reach of this new communication media grows,
campaigns may be able to resolve some of these problems and incorporate new
interactive communication techniques into their campaigns.
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