October 4, 2000 3:40 PM PDT

Voters tune to Net for presidential debates

Which candidate won the first, and arguably the most important, presidential debate? That depends on where you ask.

Based on polling results in cyberspace, Republican George W. Bush easily beat out Democrat Al Gore, who nevertheless came out ahead in official, scientific polls conducted by USA Today, Gallup and CNN.

The results do not necessarily point to a "digital divide" between the candidates. Unlike the scientific polls, which examine a random cross section of voters, Web polls are open to all comers, meaning Bush's online win could be chalked up to campaign organization.

Apparently worried that Democrats had hatched an online "ballot stuffing" scheme before the debate, Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson mass-emailed constituents, pleading that they take part in the Web polls.

"We are hearing that many liberal left-wing groups will be trying to stack the vote in favor of the Democratic candidate by bombarding the various news Web sites which will be polling immediately following the debate," Nicholson wrote in his email. "In addition to watching the debate, you should log on and express your support for who you think won the debate!"

At least one political observer said he hadn't heard of any "liberal left-wing groups" trying to "stack the vote" but gave the Republican party points for directing voters to the Web.

"It was a good way to motivate someone into participating in the election process," said Steven Clift, the outreach coordinator for political Web site Web White & Blue 2000.

With the presidential candidates competing neck and neck, the Net is shaping up to be an important sounding board for voters eager to make a difference in the tight race.

"It's amazing how aggressive the campaigns have been in the last two months," Clift said. "There is a realization that the Internet can matter even if it's just one vote per precinct."

After the 90-minute televised debate last night, viewers rushed to the Net, itching to click and vote on who they thought was the better man.

At CNN.com, which also participated in the official poll, visitors could vote on 15 different topics discussed in the debate as well as rate the candidates' appeal. Under the "overall performance" category, voters felt Bush cared about them, was more persuasive, and had a better command of the issues than Gore.

Bush was also the favorite on Evote.com, a political polling service. In responding to the question "Who won the battle in Boston," 63.30 percent chose Bush while only 29.30 percent picked Gore.

But perhaps the most interesting service came from SpeakOut.com, a Washington-based organization aimed at spurring political activism on the Web.

In a partnership with Fox News, SpeakOut offered real-time polling results as the candidates loped from one topic to another. The site made a point to say that the poll was not a scientific sampling of all American voters, but rather, that the average results were weighted to reflect the participants' national party identification and gender.

Pollsters ranked the candidates on a scale of zero to 100, with zero meaning they strongly disagreed with what was being said and 100 indicating they strongly agreed. A bar graph on the site shows that Republicans have confidence in Bush's leadership, character and decision-making ability, but they frowned upon his handling of the oil-price crisis during the debate.

Democrats, on the other hand, held a steady opinion of Gore, giving him a score of 50 throughout the debate.

"People have very strong opinions about the election and they want to find a way to productively voice them," said Rekha Chalasani, public relations director for SpeakOut. "The poll is a way of giving them an opportunity to be part of the process."

About 2,000 people participated in the SpeakOut poll, with many more who wanted to get online but couldn't because of some technical glitches, Chalasani said. The site included a notice this afternoon that stated: "In response to unprecedented demand during Tuesday's debate, we are reconfiguring our network and expanding our capacity. You may experience delays and temporary outages."

SpeakOut is teaming with Wake Forest University to create a focus group of people between the ages of 16 and 25 that will watch the Oct. 11 debate and use their computers to give moment-by-moment ratings of the candidates on the Net. Results of the opinions will be immediately available.

In the official Gallup poll, involving 435 registered voters who watched the debate, 48 percent said Gore won, beating Bush by an eyelash--41 percent said the Republican came out ahead. The margin of error was plus or minus four points.

The two vice presidential candidates are scheduled to square off in a televised debate tomorrow at 9 p.m. ET. Bush and Gore will meet again Oct. 11.

 

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