The Internet provides the government, media, and various other groups with a convenient medium by which to communicate and ultimately influence people. The expediency of the Internet facilitates the prompt composition and delivery of an email instead of performing the more arduous and expensive task of letter writing. The Internet has even demonstrated its usefulness in financial transactions – one may send money over the Internet with far less difficulty than attending a fundraiser or answering a direct mail pledge. The Internet savvy campaign team of former presidential candidate Howard Dean confirmed this long before his downfall. In so far as undecided voters are concerned, the Internet serves as a major resource of information for those who are surfing the Web to do research on candidates, seeing as voting records and other pertinent data are just a few keystrokes away.

So exactly how far-reaching is the Internet’s influence in this year’s election? Some are of the opinion that the influence of any political Web site only reaches an audience that is largely comprised of a constituency of people who have already been recruited through some other medium (i.e. perhaps by local or cable television). If this is so, then the ease with which a prospective voter may perform candidate research on the Internet ought to help both the Kerry and Bush campaigns. In this fashion, the Internet is being utilized to simply improve upon the channel of communication amongst pre-established communities. Thus the Internet’s role in this year’s presidential election fundamentally resembles that of a campaign club. Instead of coming into one’s living room, one may encounter people of like-minded political views over the Internet. Indeed, it is very common to find the active, political participants of the Internet communicating with like-minded people more so than with new people. This, of course, excludes those chat rooms or message boards that are specifically designed to weigh in on both sides of political issues.

On the other hand, if used properly, the Internet does not have to be the meeting place of pre-arranged “club” members. To be sure, the Internet has the potential to propel candidates to the forefront of the swing voter’s mind – a candidate’s effective use of the Internet may facilitate the latter in much the same way radio helped Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s and television helped John F. Kennedy in the 1960’s. The advantage will go to the candidate that can properly harness the Internet. Despite the truth in the latter statements, however influential and powerful a tool the Internet may be, a truly successful candidate must certainly have the whole package to eventually generate more votes come Election Day. Case in point – former presidential hopeful Howard Dean used the Internet more effectively than anyone else in campaign history. About a year ago this month, he raised over $1 million in a four-day period. The Dean campaign totaled in about $21 million over the Internet up until his undoing in and around the time of the Iowa caucus, when his hopes for attaining the highest office in the land came to a sudden halt.

Candidates will need to find ways to make their Web sites an interactive experience without slowing them down with an overload of graphics, audio, and video. Both sides have been using the Internet to distribute advertisements, which can be edgier since they are free from traditional election restraints. Here we begin to touch on the flip side to the Internet, especially when campaigns try to use the more interactive features. One straightforward piece of advice for both parties: what one side’s supporters can access, the opponents can access too. The Kerry campaign allowed supporters to create their own Web page on his site, but someone, clearly not a Kerry fan, created one for North Korean despot Kim Jong-Il. The Bush Web site once had a page where supporters could personalize posters. Then a person behind a political humor site sent her readers there to make posters criticizing the president on everything from his military service to his record on civil liberties. Today, political professionals are struggling to use the Internet while maintaining control. Some say this is the inherent nature of the Internet as it is simply uncontrollable, providing both opportunity and risk.

Strictly in terms of money, John Kerry has ostensibly capitalized on the financial capacity of the Internet, raising $44 million online this year, marking the only fundraising area where he has beaten President Bush (who in that time has raised just $4.5 million online). At this point, Kerry has far-surpassed Dean’s online fundraising, but the question remains: will his manifested success online render him a corresponding victory off-line come Election Day?