UW News

November 18, 2004

Minor candidates used Internet less than opponents, UW researchers find

Major-party candidates wield the Web, but many challengers stay offline

Contrary to predictions that third-party candidates would seize the Internet as a powerful tool for challenging the status quo, minor candidates remained far behind their Republican and Democratic foes this year in using the Web.

UW researchers found that every incumbent Democratic and Republican senator on the 2004 ballot had a campaign Web site. But a “surprisingly small” number of minor party candidates had campaign sites, said Philip Howard, the assistant professor of communication who led the study.

“We expected to find that across the board, minor candidates, challengers and candidates in competitive races would use the Internet to get their message out,” Howard said, “but this wasn’t so.”

Pundits have predicted that the Web would encourage alternative political voices and provide a cost-effective way for independent and third-party candidates to promote their ideas, organize volunteers and collect donations.

“This year, the electorate was highly polarized and there wasn’t much room for third-party candidates,” Howard said. “Those who did run chose to spend what funds they had on conventional ads.”

Overall, Howard and his 120-student research team found that the Internet was an important part of candidates’ communication strategies in Senate, House and governor’s races. But in every category, Republicans and Democrats outpaced third-party candidates in Web use.

Of the 159 candidates for U.S. Senate tracked in the study, 113 had Web sites — about about 71 percent. But among the minor-party Senate candidates, barely half were online.

Howard’s team, which operates a political research site called CampaignAudit.org, monitored Web use by candidates for Senate, House and governor in 2004, and then compared the findings to studies from four previous election seasons.

In comparison with the 2000 election season, the proportion of senatorial and gubernatorial candidates using campaign Web sites actually diminished in 2004, and only the proportion of House candidates using the Web increased.

“We expected that candidates in competitive races would be eager for cost-effective ways of getting their campaign message out,” said Miko Tempski, a senior political science student on the project, “but this seems to be true only in House races.”

For each year studied, Howard and his students were able to track more than 90 percent of the candidates, with many of the unsampled being write-ins.

This year, Republican and Democratic candidates were equally likely to have Web sites. In the 11 races for governor, every major-party challenger had a site, but Senate and House challengers were less likely to have them than incumbents.

Overall, about 68 percent of this year’s 1,209 U.S. House candidates and 68 percent of the 44 gubernatorial candidates had Web sites.

The complete information is on http://www.CampaignAudit.org.