GW’s Graduate School of Political Management received a two-year $2 million grant from Pew Charitable Trusts this fall to research the effects of the Internet on political campaigns.
“It’s a great project because it puts GW at the center of the discussion on the (World Wide Web) and at the center for improving democracy,” said GSPM Dean Christopher Arterton.
“It’s the first major research project for GSPM in 10 years,” said Michael Cornfield, project research director. “It’s the first chance for us to show the rest of the University that we can do high quality and high impact research.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit group based in Philadelphia, funds research in public policy and religion among other fields.
GSPM has set up a 12-member, University-wide faculty committee to offer suggestions on how to effectively use the research grant and provide assumptions about the Internet’s role in campaigning, Arterton said.
The project already has begun interviewing Web masters and campaign strategists to assess which – if any – age group is targeted by candidates’ Web sites.
During the 1998 elections, GSPM took the first Web census to assess how many House of Representative, Senate and gubernatorial candidates maintained official campaign Web sites, Cornfield said.
“(It’s) an encouraging sign that at least online, for now, you don’t have to raise money nonstop to have a chance to get your message out,” Cornfield said, alluding to the high costs of television advertising.
GSPM also will hold conferences addressing topics such as the use of the Internet by political candidates during the 1998 elections and the future of Web development in the political process in the spring, Arterton said.
GSPM will examine the Internet’s role in five to eight municipal elections during the two-year project. The school will release periodic reports detailing its findings.
“(We hope) the reports will have some impact on candidates and policy makers and Web providers of how (Web sites) should be nurtured,” Arterton said. “You could say the Internet had an impact on a very close election.”
He cited the Nevada senate race – decided by less than 500 votes – as a case in which the Internet could have swayed voters. But Arterton voiced caution about the Internet’s communication powers.
“Almost everyone believes this is not yet an effective medium of political influence, but it has great potential,” Arterton said. “You could channel it and improve it before you try to reform it.”
An element of the Internet that needs reform is attack advertising, similar to that in television political campaign ads. Internet “smear campaigns” are less prevalent than televised attack ads. But in 1996, a Web site was posted to smear presidential candidate Robert Dole.
Cornfield said the Web will feature increased campaign advertising with more candidates buying banners on search engines and news sites in the future.
But Cornfield said Internet advertising still does not offer as much exposure as television.
“There will be dirty politics online and what (the project) hopes to do is educate people so that they can recognize when a site is legitimate,” Cornfield said. “We say at GSPM that `Your message is only as good as your strategy.’ It’s what you say and when you say it.”