If you don’t recall Larry Agran’s run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1992, I can’t blame you—I’d forgotten about it myself. Even at the time, the former mayor of Irvine, California’s campaign was famous, if anything, for its obscurity. He ended up collecting a grand total of 58,611 votes in the Democratic primaries and eventually went back to being the mayor of Irvine and a member of the city council, holding the latter office until 2014.
But Agran’s bid for the White House deserves to be remembered for at least one reason: Along the way, he pioneered online campaigning. At the time, that meant going onto the proprietary dial-up services that thrived in the pre-web era, including CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, and an upstart named America Online. Which, to varying degrees, most of the major campaigns did—including those of president George H.W. Bush and the eventual Democratic nominee, Bill Clinton.
There was an idealistic streak to this development. “Disgusted by politics’ high-gloss superficiality and the ‘sound-bite’ orientation of the mass media, many American voters are losing interest in one of their fundamental rights,” declared an article in CompuServe magazine, a dead-tree publication which the service produced for its members. “For those who subscribe to information services such as CompuServe, however, ‘modemocracy’ or ‘cyberspace campaigning’ is making important strides in empowering the electorate.”
That was CompuServe’s own view of what it was doing. Much of the contemporaneous coverage of early online electioneering, however, treated it as…well, kind of cute. It wasn’t even a given that it was a good idea, given that the candidates who took it most seriously, such as Agran and Jerry Brown, failed to score their party’s nomination. “Larry may be about 50 years ahead of his time,” one Republican consultant told the Orange County Register. “Most people can’t even program their VCRs. You’ve got to be a real junkie for this kind of thing.”
Twenty-four years later, we know that Agran was indeed ahead of his time—but not by half a century. Every four years, online campaigning has become a little more essential to the way presidents get elected. And everyone from Barack Obama to Donald Trump has pursued modern-day equivalents of the techniques created during the 1992 race.
Long before 1992, presidential campaigns were using computers to help give themselves a competitive edge. In 1976, for instance, Computerworldreported that the Carter/Mondale campaign was spending $2,000 a month to perform tasks such as managing volunteers, accessing New York Times articles, and tracking expenses using dial-up terminals—including ones aboard the candidates’ planes. (They only worked when the aircraft were on the ground.)
What campaigns weren’t doing was leveraging computers as a communications medium—because hardly any voters were online to be communicated at. Even in 1989, the year after vice president George H.W. Bush defeated Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, only 1.7% of consumers tapped into networked information services at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was in part because there weren’t many major services to tap into: The venerable CompuServe and GE’s GEnie were already around, but America Online wasn’t yet known as America Online, and Prodigy (a joint venture of Sears and IBM) was still in regional trials.
By 1991, as the 1992 campaign got underway, CompServe, GEnie, Prodigy, and AOL were competing vigorously and expanding their customer bases. (A few days before the general election on November 3, 1992, AOL, still an upstart compared to CompuServe, announced that it had 200,000 subscribers, up 40% from a year earlier.) Online voters remained a dinky minority—in 1993, only 5.8% of consumers used online information services from home—but they were a rapidly expanding group worth courting.
As CompuServe touted, online campaigning allowed a candidate to sidestep the major media companies who served as gatekeepers between politicians and the electorate. It held another attraction, too: It was dirt cheap. That made them perfect for an underdog like Larry Agran.
Agran announced his candidacy on August 22, 1991: A day later, the Los Angeles Times was already reporting that the bid had already been “dismissed as hopeless by many analysts.” He began with $7,000 in funds and by December had a grand total of four paid staffers.
From the start, the deeply entrenched election-coverage machine refused to take Agran seriously, leading him to take his message online. A Democratic candidate debate broadcast on NBC on December 15, 1991 included six candidates: Jerry Brown, Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey, Paul Tongas, and Douglas Wilder. Agran was not invited. Instead, as Orange County magazine reported, “Agran spoke directly to the people a day earlier via CompuServe, an electronic mail service accessible through the Prodigy computer package, which has 850,000 subscribers.” That garbled explanation is a clue to just how new a concept online services were to most people: CompuServe was not part of Prodigy, but its archrival.
According to CompuServe magazine’s article on modemocracy, Agran held an online press conference in January 1992, becoming the first presidential candidate to do so. By contrast, his real-world campaigning continued to go poorly: In April 1992, he was even arrested for disorderly conduct when he tried to crash another debate that did not include him.
“In retrospect, the online networks such as CompuServe turned out to be the only way that the Agran campaign could circumvent those powerful insiders at the Democratic National Committee and in the national media who worked to exclude him from the electoral process,” said Agran’s issues director, Steve Smith, as quoted in CompuServe magazine.
Like Agran, Jerry Brown—at the time, the former governor of California, and in 2016, the current one—was running for president on a bare-bones budget and found online campaigning to be a cost-effective way of pressing the virtual flesh. In March 1992, he held an “electronic town meeting” on GEnie that was attended by around 200 members. He then conducted a similar event on CompuServe in May for an audience of about 100.
The Washington Post reported that Brown’s GEnie session was billed as the first such event headlined by a major presidential candidate for president—which may have been true, if you didn’t count poor Larry Agran. The newspaper quoted an excerpt (strictly sic) of the candidate’s comments about Jesse Jackson, which he used a borrowed Mac to type:
Jackson has won more than 7y millio9n votes and his trsaveled widely in the world and has been a lea leader in the civil rights struggle which still con tin ues as the majolr challenge facing our nation.
Brown may have been a crummy typist, but the fact he was typing at all underlined that he was personally involved in this particular piece of online campaigning. That was unusual. His digital team, who described themselves in one CompuServe message quoted by the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz as “Deborah, who is one of the computer gurus at campaign headquarters, and Russ, an overworked, underpaid volunteer,” uploaded materials such as position papers and press releases to the service. Employees of other campaigns, including eventual nominees Bush and Clinton, served similar roles as emissaries to cyberspace.
The Clinton campaign also formed a “Clinton/Gore ’92 E-Mail Team” to send out documents such as talking points, some of which went viral and ended up in USENET Internet groups and are still available on Google Groups. Doing so showed “that both the filters and interpretations of the media and the organizational hierarchies of a campaign can be removed from the delivery of information to the citizens and voters,” the team’s leader said in a memo quoted in a 1993 Villanova Law Review article.
Oddly enough, independent candidate Ross Perot—the billionaire founder of a computing services company, who said he had envisioned “electronic town hall” meetings since the 1960s, with computerized voting—didn’t embrace online campaigning in its rudimentary-yet-useful 1992 form. When Prodigy invited the general election candidates to post position papers on the service and field questions from members, the Bush and Clinton campaigns participated, but Perot declined. (Prodigy, according to Bloomberg, also tried selling ads to candidates, starting at $10,000.)
Modemocracy had its share of controversies. For one thing, it was hardly egalitarian. “How many poor people have Prodigy or CompuServe?” asked Clem Bezold, the executive director of a think tank called the Institute for Alternative Futures, as quoted by Bloomberg. At the time, less than a quarter of all U.S. households had a PC, and online services were billed by the minute and quite pricey.
The fact that the online services were proprietary networks where freedom of the press didn’t apply was also an issue: One volunteer for Pat Buchanan’s campaign grumbled that Prodigy suppressed material such as his musings about overthrowing the federal government. CompuServe even got in hot water for offering free accounts to the campaigns, which the Federal Election Commission deemed to be a form of political contribution.
Still, those who were optimistic enough to anticipate online access becoming widespread saw the 1992 digital campaign as the start of something that mattered. The League of Women Voters helped out Prodigy with its “Political Profile” section by providing information on how to register to vote. “Someday, congressmen will be on the network,” the league’s national director Mary Ellen Barry, told Bloomberg.
A whole lot happened in cyberspace between the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. Less than three months after Bill Clinton was elected to his first term, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign released the first version of Mosaic, the first popular graphical browser for the World Wide Web, which Tim Berners-Lee of the CERN research lab in Switzerland had devised in 1990. The easy-to-use Mosaic helped bootstrap the web from a tool for geeks into a nascent consumer medium, a trend that only continued when Andreessen cofounded Netscape and launched the Navigator browser in 1994.
By the time the 1996 campaign got underway in earnest, the web was far more of a phenomenon than proprietary online services had ever been. Rather than having to go through CompuServe or Prodigy to reach voters, candidates could simply launch their own sites. They did, and by 2016 standards, the results were a master class in terrible web design. (In a prank that foreshadowed many to come, a couple of wisenheimers registered a bunch of campaign-related domain names and launched their own fake sites, before most candidates had gotten around to building their own.)
The web became so important so quickly that it swamped the networks that preceded it. AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, and Prodigy all evolved into internet service providers—and eventually ceased to exist, at least in forms remotely similar to their original incarnations. But they deserve to be remembered, and their role in 1992’s digital campaign is a big, epoch-shifting reason why.