Wooing 'Wired Workers'

Ever since Ronald Reagan ran away with the once Democratic South, pollsters, pundits and candidates have struggled to understand the American Swing Voter. From Reagan Democrats to "angry white males" to "soccer moms," these groups of late deciders have coalesced in middle-class suburbs to cast their key votes. This year pollsters like the Democrats' Mark Penn have singled out what they believe may be the mother lode of volatile voters: a predominantly male group of Web surfers and Nasdaq disciples whose lives have been transformed by the digital revolution--what the political pros are calling the "wired workers." "This New Economy voter has, almost overnight, become a huge force," says Penn, who helped design Clinton's 1996 appeal to soccer moms.

Wired workers aren't just options-wielding hipsters from Silicon Valley. According to a survey Penn completed earlier this year for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, they make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, or 35 million voters. Their natural habitat is the suburban office park. They are IT managers and Webmasters, data analysts and customer-service agents. Their annual income is $55,000 to $80,000 a year (compared with a national average of $43,000). And more than 40 percent of wired workers say they are "independents"--in other words, up for grabs.

So far, neither Al Gore nor George Bush has come up with a clear strategy for wooing them. Bush's lead pollster, Fred Steeper, says technology is so ubiquitous that wired workers can't be targeted as a meaningful voting group. The more important indicator, he says, is whether a voter owns stock. "The increase in the investor class has political consequences," he says. "The public responds less to the notion of haves versus have-nots, because everyone has a plan for becoming a 'have'."

Wired workers tend to be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. They like Gore's ideas about gun control, global warming, civil rights and abortion, but they are also intrigued by Bush's proposals for tax cuts, school vouchers and investing Social Security trust funds in the market. They oppose policies that guarantee outcomes: wired workers don't support affirmative action, but they favor investing in education to increase diversity in the workplace.

After watching both Bush and Gore deliver their convention speeches, Jeff Shankman, a 33-year-old energy-company executive in Houston, says picking a candidate is "torment." Shankman likes Bush's oil-industry background and his tax-cut proposals, but is turned off by conservative GOP social policies, especially on abortion. He appreciates Gore as an "independent thinker" and a supporter of public education, but was left cold by Gore's "people versus the powerful" pitch. "I guess I'm a Republicrat," says Shankman. "There are things about them both that appeal to me."

Unlike the swing voters of previous elections, wired workers are better educated, more diverse and more tolerant of minorities than average voters. The surge in the number of stock owners is especially significant, argues Steeper. Wired workers were first pinpointed in a 1996 survey by the Institute for the New California, a group monitoring the growth of the information economy. Researchers found that where people worked was less important than how they worked. Wired workers operate in teams, not hierarchies. Their jobs require creative problem-solving rather than routine tasks. And they demand the same of their political leaders. "Class rhetoric is a huge turnoff for this group," says Penn. "Instead of griping about labor and management, they want to play the market and start their own businesses."

Wired workers vote. And how they get their information is just as important as what they believe. "I'm sitting in front of a computer most of the time," says Mike Griffith, a 28-year-old software engineer from Farmington Hills, Mich. "So I don't need to go out and buy magazines or newspapers." Instead, Griffith gets news from the Internet. Griffith says he'll monitor the campaign online and will not make up his mind until the October debates.

That presents a challenge for the major campaigns. Because wired workers get information from so many sources, TV advertising isn't that effective. And putting up banner ads in cyberspace doesn't give the candidates enough "eyeball time" to present the kind of sophisticated policy arguments wired voters will demand in order to make up their minds. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader plans a still-secret Internet strategy to attract the swing vote. "You have to talk to them in a different way," Nader told NEWSWEEK. "These are people who know how to get their own information." Which candidate will get through to the new, wired generation? Probably the one who wins.