Just a few steps from the Tenleytown Metro station, three American University freshmen crowd around a table at Starbucks and explain their plan to bring presidential candidates to college-age voters.
New Jersey natives Rachel Tardiff and Leah-Michelle Nebbia and Shannon Sullivan of Pittsburgh are coordinating the launch of Straight2theCandidates.com, a Web site that allows users to submit questions directed to the various presidential candidates. As questions are submitted, users vote for their favorites, and the most popular are forwarded to the candidates in hopes of getting a response.
The site is modeled after a German site, Direktzu.de, that has been successful in regularly getting its questions answered by the office of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the students said. The German
site is funded by a number of European universities and is giving the U.S. site’s creators free access to its software technology.
On the site’s front page, campaign buttons featuring the names and faces of candidates link to messages different users have left for them. The buttons get larger as more messages are left, making it a simple matter to see who’s getting the most activity. So far, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) leads with 11 messages, while Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) comes in second with nine. Questions for Republican candidates have been slower in coming; currently, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has the most with six, the same number directed to second-tier Democrats Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio).
The AU students’ involvement began when a professor teaching an Understanding Mass Media course invited two of the German site’s founders to address the class. They asked class members for help in setting up an American version of the German site; Tardiff and Nebbia, who are in the class, signed on. They helped recruit others to round out the effort, including Sullivan.
One of the site’s main goals is to promote political activity in an age group that historically produces low voter turnout and that spends much time logged on to the Internet, said Nebbia, who is serving as the site’s communications director.
“Every election, there’s always a wave [of effort] to get students active and voting,” Nebbia said. “We’re the plugged-in generation, and this site is right there [online]. We’re on hours and hours a day.”
“I think there’s a feeling of disconnection between our generation and government,” Tardiff, the site’s president, added. Politicians “don’t appeal to what is important to us — they may not know. There’s always some pandering, but that’s fleeting.”
Sullivan, the vice president, said most of their outreach efforts on behalf of the site are focused on college campuses.
“We have a list of 45 colleges” the group is targeting, Sullivan said. “We’re getting in touch with campus newspapers and political organizations, making it really a youth organization.”
At the same time, however, the site’s founders have no desire to drive other age groups away. Sullivan said the plan is “to start with the youth, then branch out,” and Tardiff says there’s nothing about the site’s design that would turn off an older user.
“There are no youth-based graphics, there’s no crazy music,” she said.
Tebbia added she hopes that the site will “grow up” with young voters as they age.
Of course, whether the site is successful depends largely on candidates’ willingness to answer questions put to them by its users. So even as Tardiff, Sullivan, Tebbia and the other volunteers reach out to their fellow college students across the country, they’ve also been contacting the presidential campaigns to try to garner support.
“We’re contacting all the candidates, their tech people and media people,” Tardiff said. “We’re hoping that with a push from site usage and media attention, politicians will agree to answer questions” submitted via the site. She said that they already have been in touch with the campaigns of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D).
“The lesser-known candidates have more of a stake” in a project like Straight2the Candidates.com, Tardiff said, “because they all have something to say and less money to get the message out.”
Jesse Benton, communications director for Paul’s presidential bid, said the campaign will “certainly take a look at” Straight2the Candidates.com. “Ron believes in candidates being accessible to voters.”
In addition, Benton said Paul’s campaign “wanted to move more toward” directly responding to voter questions, whether submitted through Web sites or via e-mail.
The German site has been criticized by some for merely providing politicians another platform for propaganda. Tardiff said that, in the long run, candidates won’t do themselves any favors if they don’t directly answer people’s questions.
“The people who ask the questions can interpret the answers,” Tardiff said. “They will see if a candidate avoids the crux of the issue.”
“It will just hurt the candidate if they don’t answer the question,” Nebbia said; “People will lose interest in them,” Sullivan added.
Of course, the three are still first-year college students, and trying to launch an interactive Web site through grass-roots outreach while handling course work and transitioning to dorm life keeps them extremely busy. Sullivan says she talks to Roman Sehling, a recent Georgetown grad who’s been advising the group, “more than my parents and siblings combined.”
“Coming into this new environment, never having lived on my own before — I’ve learned a lot about managing time,” Tebbia said. “Having this site from the very beginning, it just becomes one more aspect of managing time — I don’t really remember not working on it.”