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The Race to the White House

Political Websites Try to Click With Younger Generation of Voters

March 31, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — With less than 24 hours remaining before his first voting experience, 19-year-old Miguel Navarrete was still puzzling over how John F. Kerry and John Edwards compared on the issues of importance to him: crime, drugs and education.

"Hey, I'm a college student," said Navarrete, a psychology major at San Diego State University. "So, of course, I only do things at the last moment." And so, like an increasing number of members of his computer-savvy but time-pressed generation, Navarrete turned to the Internet.

In this political season of blogs and cyber-fundraising, a new kind of website is making its mark: sites that, with a few keystrokes, allow a voter to have candidates ranked or graded on how well they conform to the voter's needs and views.

In Navarrete's case, the site was devised by San Diego-based Idego Methodologies -- www.visiontreesoftware.com. Loaded with the views of presidential candidates on 15 issues, it prepares a numerical ranking based on input from the site user.

"You're seeing the future, man," said Kirk Howard, 20, a business major. "Young people don't have time to listen to speeches or collect the newspapers."

Earlier in the campaign, Howard compared Democrats Kerry and Edwards to see how they matched with his political beliefs and interests. They both matched up evenly.

If select-a-candidate sites are the future, they are arriving in a hurry. They are the latest attempt to get young voters interested in politics by making information accessible, bite-size and interactive.

Idego's "voter's choice" is a newcomer to the field, which includes www.selectsmart.com/president and AOL's www.presidentmatch.com, which attracted 545,000 visitors in January alone.

Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, thinks the sites may have found a way to do something that has eluded newspapers and television: make politics interesting.

"I don't see these as dumbing-down democracy," Schaffer said. "They're another entry point to help citizens get involved, get engaged in the election. And for many, it's fun."

There can be surprises, she said. "Sometimes, people realize they don't really agree with the candidate they thought they liked."

AOL spokeswoman Katie Griesbeck said that Kerry campaign workers have acknowledged using the presidentmatch.com website to see if they were compatible with their candidate. "They found out they're a fit," she said.

Although the sites are open to all ages, their chief audience is the 18- to 29-year-old set, which matches a trend of younger voters who, while still attentive to newspapers and television, rely on the Internet.

A study released in January by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21% of the 18-29 age bracket get most of their campaign news from the Internet. In 2000, the figure was 9% and in 1996, just 4%.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that part of the attraction of the sites was the video-game-like "play" that allows responses.

"I'm enchanted by them even though I think they're crude and imperfect," Rosenstiel said. "If this is an entryway into politics and issues, it's a great tool, and I think it's only the beginning."

Take the day before the California primary as the VisionTree software was being displayed on the quad at San Diego State. Nearby, three state Assembly candidates and a city attorney candidate were speaking.

If students were listening, they kept walking. Meanwhile, lines were forming at the computers.

"The interface is inviting," said Adam Hawkins, 21, an information systems major. "Information has got to be quick, not like places like Iowa and Minnesota where it takes hours to attend caucuses. No young voters are going to do that."

Lack of confidence is one reason that experts give for the poor turnout of younger voters in most elections, poorer still than similar age groups of years past.

"A lot of young people just reject the whole political process because it's so complicated," said Carole Kennedy, assistant professor of political science at San Diego State, who let Idego road-test the software in her classroom.

The hope is that the software is the beginning, not the end, of political involvement.

"I think young people are smart enough to treat such a service as one more piece of information, not a 'tell me how to vote' machine," said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University.

"The focus is on issues and the candidates' views, not haircuts and wives."

Politics is a movable feast and sites are being updated to add independent Ralph Nader and to eliminate candidates no longer in the hunt for the Democratic nomination.

Take the case of Howard Dean, whose computer-centric campaign was considered revolutionary.

When he stopped campaigning, his data was dropped from the VisionTree software, proof anew that, on the stump or cyberspace, politics was a cruel business.

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