Web Site Aims To Query Candidates

This story was written by Laraine Weschler, The Eagle
Voters who did not get their YouTube questions answered by presidential candidates have a new option, according to Rachel Tardiff, a freshman in American University's School of Communication.

Tardiff and a group of students, including about 15 from AU, created Straight2theCandidates.com, a Web site designed to encourage candidates to answer voters' most pressing questions. The Web site was launched in the beginning of October.

Users of the site can "speak out" by posting questions to specific candidates or "listening" by reading and voting for the questions they find most important. The site's administrators plan to send the first batch of questions via e-mail to campaign staff Nov. 4, according to Anna Cottone, a member of the site's press group and a freshman in SOC.

There is no guarantee that the candidates will answer, but those involved with the project hope that enough people will ask questions to create a media buzz about the site, which will force the candidates to respond, Cottone said.

The founders of a similar German site, direktzu.de, presented the idea for a U.S. version of the Web site in professor Sarah Menke-Fish's Understanding Mass Media class at the beginning of the semester.

Tardiff, now president of Straight2theCandidates.com, jumped on the idea, meeting with the Germans who began the site, Alexander Puschkin and Caveh V. Zonooz, many times over two weeks. The Germans traveled to the United States to recruit students for the project, but AU students took the lead in getting the project off the ground.

"[The Web site] was created just as a means for regular citizens to contact the officials in charge," said Alyssa Wolice, a freshman in SOC and a member of the Web team. "It's a way for them to voice their opinions and have their questions and concerns presented."

Although the Germans act as consultants for the American site, the student group is in control of the Web site, said Shannon Sullivan, vice president of Straight2theCandidates.com and a freshman in the School of International Service.

The site is a win-win situation for both candidates and voters because it allows for democratic political dialogue, Cottone said.

Unlike the CNN/YouTube debates, in which voters posted video questions on YouTube.com that were then chosen by CNN for televised debates, there is not a "middle man" on Straight2theCandidates.com, Sullivan said. The Web team hopes to send the top three voted questions each week to the candidates.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has garnered the most questions so far, with 34 posted on the site.

Student members across the country are working to promote the site on their campuses, and the team has a long list of media contacts to try to generate more interest, Cottone said.

The team has handed out fliers at the anti-war protest, an Obama fund-raising event and at Georgetown and George Washington universities, Tardiff said.

The team has been contacting tech and media representatives in all the candidates' campaigns to tell them about the project in hopes of getting a direct line to the candidates. They hope lesser-known candidates will respond to questions and the site's credibility will gain momentum as more people hear about it.

"It seems like college students have the potential to create the most dynamic, interactive Web sites," said Hillary Blank, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, referencing sites like Facebook.

Straight2theCandidates.com and other Web sites are the start of a revolution in the relationship between candidates and the voters that they are courting, Blank said.

Straight2theCandidates.com will be useful as long as the questions are answered, said Caleb Skeath, a freshman in the Kogod School of Business.

&qot;[Internet outreach campaigns] won't turn the election one way or another, but it will be a factor," he said.
© 2007 The Eagle via U-WIRE