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~Wellesley Professor Asks: Will the Internet Change the Democratic Process?~

For immediate release:
October 15, 2003

CONTACT:
Arlie Corday,
781-283-3321


WELLESLEY, Mass. -- The Internet has changed the way we communicate from e-mails to personal Web sites to blogging to message boards and beyond. So it's natural that political campaigns, which rely on communication to succeed, have moved into cyberspace. But are politicians making good use of this relatively new medium to get across their best message?

Some certainly are. Many credit presidential candidate Howard Dean's use of the Internet with the Democratic frontrunner's popularity. Wanting to know more about the trend, Wellesley College political scientist Jeff Gulati has conducted research into how the Internet affects political campaigns by analyzing 690 political candidates' Web sites. His research has been presented at the 2003 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association and will be published in the January 2004 Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics.

IN OR OUT? Gulati found significant differences between political "insiders" vs. "outsiders." Some politicos didn't even mention they were members of Congress; others flaunted their powerful connections. "Insiders make sure their constituents know they walk the halls of power," Gulati said.

Gulati found that Democratic women are more likely to present themselves as "outsiders," wanting to be seen as just "local politicians."

"Outsiders may be avoiding their association with Washington in an attempt to convey the message that they have not lost touch with the folks back home," Gulati said.

In contrast, Republican women and both Democratic and Republican men like to be seen as insiders.

IMAGE MAKING: Gulati discovered a decided gender gap among candidates. In a separate study of 500 web sites, Gulati and student researcher Sarah Treul found that women candidates, who still remain in the minority, must dress for success. Gulati said the images on women's Web sites typically depict a formal, businesslike candidate who chooses photos with constituents vs. family pictures. In contrast, male politicians seem to post any image from the lawyerly to the folksy, depending on their constituencies and how they want to relate to them. For the folksy approach, go to http://miller.senate.gov/ to see Georgia Senator Zell Miller, who is wearing jeans and hanging out with his dogs. In contrast, go to http://www.house.gov/bono/ to see how Congresswoman Mary Bono, who used to be blond and wife of the late entertainer-turned-congressman Sonny Bono, now projects a different image. The researchers found only one female politico who sported the "jeans" look online.

On their Web sites, female candidates may dress more formally, but they are more informal than men when it comes to the tone of their welcome messages, more likely to emphasize personal connections with the voters and less likely to emphasize their past political experience and leadership skills.

" Taken together, women on the Web seem to be conveying the message that what makes them qualified to be a good representative is that they care about what their constituents think, that they can relate to their problems, and they are always accessible and approachable," Gulati found.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES: Gulati discovered a few surprises in his research. For example, candidates with little money might be expected to maximize a Web campaign since its costs are minimal compared to paying for TV ads or printing up and distributing flyers, for example. But that wasn't the case.

"The less established candidates have not been taking advantage of this new medium," Gulati said. "Rather, it seems that Web sites have become more commonplace for the more professional campaigns. In addition, Independents and third-party candidates have been less likely to campaign on the Web."

In 2002, 76 percent of the Republicans and 67 percent of the Democrats running for the House had a campaign Web site. Only 40 percent of the minor-party candidates did.

MISSING INFORMATION: Unlike other forms of political campaigning, the Web offers far more freedom. But candidates often miss this opportunity, too.

"One of the more useful features of campaign Web sites is that there is an almost unlimited amount of space to include descriptions about the candidates, news about the campaign, candidates' issue positions and other information that can help voters make better choices about whom to support," Gulati said. "Yet, even with all this space, some candidates neglected to mention even the most basic of information: the district in which they were running. One fourth of all the House candidates did not indicate anywhere on their home page the location of their congressional district. One Democratic incumbent who did, however, provided voters with the wrong congressional district."

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal-arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries. For more information, contact Wellesley College at 781-283-3321.

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