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OnTheIssues.org Q & A

In preparation for Software Freedom Day, Sept. 21 2013
The Sunlight Foundation panel on government transparency


Q: When did OnTheIssues.org start?

A: We were founded as "Issues2000.org" in 1999. At first we only covered the presidential race. We attempted to start up during the 1996 presidential campaign but we failed -- there just was not enough material available in 1996 to create a website -- no campaigns had their own websites, so we had to write to each candidate for materials. By 1999, that had changed: Bush and Gore both had websites, as did most third-party candidates. Debates were transcribed and posted online, even those featuring Nader and Buchanan. We used those materials as the basis for our 2000 coverage. Our presidential coverage pretty much follows that same pattern today. The focus of our coverage then, as now, is the "VoteMatch" 20-question quiz (although the content of the 20 questions has changed several times!). You answer 20 questions, and VoteMatch compares your answers to each presidential candidate, and scores you with a "best match" overall, as well as matching separately on a social scale and an economic scale.

Q: How have you grown since then?

A: We added Senate race coverage in early 2000, covering major challengers as well as Senate incumbents. We have covered every Senate race since then, about 34 races each two years. We added House incumbent coverage in 2001 (retroactively covering the 106th Congress). We cover the incumbents by voting records and bill sponsorships, but we cannot cover House challengers except by request -- so we add each of the newly-elected House members every two years. We added incumbent Governor coverage in 2002, with some coverage of selected Gubernatorial races (like our home state of Massachusetts). We added partial Cabinet coverage in 2004. We added book archives in 2005 (excerpting political books, focusing on presidential candidates at first, adding Governors and Senators later; with book reviews beginning shortly thereafter). We added Supreme Court coverage in 2006. We first added Past Presidents in 2008, and have recently expanded backwards to JFK, and are currently adding Ike and Truman. We added mayoral coverage in 2011.

Q: How big is the OTI website?

A: We currently have about 75,000 webpages on the entire website, covering about 1,000 incumebnts and challengers. Since each webpage might be about a dozen printed pages, that'd the equivalent of several thousand printed volumes. The 75,000 pages are not all unique: each excerpt is typically on four separate webpages: once by candidate, once by issue, once by state, and once by source. We actually don't keep count of our webpages, but we do count source material in three categories that we call "Quotes, Votes, and Notes," which are all merged together onto each webpage. "Quotes" are individual excerpts from books, debates, and websites, which we add one at a time -- about 60,000 currently. "Votes" are voting records from the House and Senate, with an explanation and a Yes/No vote for each incumbent. We currently have about 130,000 individual voting records for 600 different Congressional votes. "Notes" are a collection of signed documents, where each signatory is listed (we only indicate whether they signed; there's no Yes/No here); this category includes bill sponsorships, letters from groups of Governors or legislators; Supreme Court rulings; advocacy group ratings; committee memberships, and so on. We currently have about 70,000 individual Note signature records for 900 different documents. We get about 20 million viewers in each election cycle; our record for one day is 800,000 viewers (that's people, not "hits" and not "page views") on the day McCain picked Sarah Palin, because we had covered Palin and no one else had.

Q: Where does all of that come from?

A: Votes and bill sponsorships come from the Library of Congress (thomas.loc.gov, the finest service our federal government offers voters, but not easy to navigate!). For both votes and bill sponsorships, we read extensively through the Congressional Record to find both supporters' and opponents' opinions. Individual quotations come from debates, books, and candidate websites. For debates and books, we do most of the transcription ourselves, excerpting relevant issue stances from the original sources. We do write to every Senate challenger and presidential candidate, asking them to provide responses to our 20-question quiz, and we publish their results (or transcribe phone interviews, for those who won't put their answers in writing). Very few candidates answer our request, and even fewer incumbents respond -- we consider that the reason our website needs to exist! We focus on primary sources (original materials without opinion added) but use secondary sources (newspaper reports) when no primary sources are available. We never use tertiary sources (people commenting on news reports). It's very labor-intensive.

Q: How many staff do you have?

A: We have not had fulltime staff since the dot-com days of 2000. We are run by volunteers and low-paid part-time staff, all of whom have "day jobs." During presidential campaigns, we hire staff to cover the presidential race and the local Senate and gubernatorial races -- in January 2012, we peaked at about 15 paid staff, but all were part-time. In the off-season, we have a half-dozen semi-paid staff to keep the website updated and to prepare for the next election cycle. In 2000, as part of the Speakout Corporation, we shared about 50 fulltime paid staff between our website and speakout.com (we were VC-funded). That staff allowed us to get our infrastructure set up. Nowadays, we rely on dedicated volunteers who believe in what we're doing, much more than paid staff.

Q: Who funds the website?

A: During off-season, we are funded entirely by advertising revenue. We keep our expenses low by having no fulltime staff and by relying on dedicated volunteers. During the presidential election cycle, we "syndicate" our content, which means we sell the right to use our content, to political organizations. In 2012, for example, we syndicated to AmericansElect.org, who used a 10-question quiz to provide their membership with the issue stances of 600 potential presidential nominees (their goal was to run an online nominating convention, but they postponed until 2016). Our syndication deal included research to gather answers to questions that AmericansElect was interested in, which we had not previously covered, as well as candidates that AmericansElect was interested in, whom we had not previously covered.

Q: Who else have you partnered with?

A: Other syndication partners include: Fox News; PBS Frontline; ActiVote, a "Rock the Vote" group; Vote.com; GoVote.com, and several local political organizations. Our big partnership was with the Speakout Corporation, who sponsored us with VC-funding in the dot-com boom of 1999-2000. That corporation went under in the dot-com bust of 2000-2001, and we became the Speakout Foundation, a not-for-profit organization. We attempted to secure grant funding for the next few years, but were not very successful at it, so we decided to reorganize as a for-profit organization to syndicate content. We have changed our advertising partners several times over the years; we have focused mostly on "google ads" and currently also have an advertising partnership with townhall.com. We have a commission deal with Amazon for links from our many book reviews, as well as for the dozen books we publish (our best-seller, "Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney On The Issues," sold just enough copies to cover production costs; please buy our books on Amazon if you believe in us!)

Q: Why do you do it, since there's so little money?

A: Our founders and our volunteers believe passionately that the American voter needs more information and better information than is provided by politicians and the mainstream media. The Internet holds the potential to fully solve that lack of quality information -- and OnTheIssues is in a unique position to fill this serious societal gap.

Q: What is your political bias?

A: We get complaints that we are too far right and we also get complaints that we are too far left, so we figure we're doing ok. We've worked with both Fox News and PBS, so our mainstream media counterparts consider us acceptable on both sides of the partisan divide. We don't believe in the one-dimensional right-left spectrum -- the entire VoteMatch system is designed to illuminate a two-dimensional system (social scale and economic scale). On that scale, our founders are generally "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" -- which has resulted in our registering in both major parties and with some third-parties as well. We are iconoclastic more than we are partisan. That means our bias is mostly against the two-party system -- both parties have too much interest, in our view, in hiding information from the public. Furthermore, the two parties have co-opted the press and the pundit class into going along with their game, to the detriment of voters and citizens. We respect voters and we believe that voters will make good decisions when they are provided with good information -- but politicians and the mainstream media conspire to NOT provide good information. When you ask voters how they decide whom to vote for, they prefer to respond, "I vote based on whom I agree with" but the reality is more "I vote based on whom I like" (we researched that for PBS Frontline!). We recognize that most voters do not vote "on the issues" -- but we believe that they WANT to vote on the issues, but cannot get the information needed to do so. We believe the American political system is broken because it does not provide voters with that necessary information -- and our website fixes that.

Q: Who are the people behind OTI?

A: Our founders are: Jesse Gordon--a Massachusetts progressive (who insists, "Progressives are NOT liberal!")--who is a registered Independent after running for local office as a Democrat a decade ago but also having served as a Libertarian Party activist a decade prior to that; Paul Hrabal--the founder of GoVote.com--a Log Cabin Republican who came up with the concept of a 20-question quiz; and Dr. Naomi Lichtenberg--a native Hoosier who now resides in Montana--who came up with the content of our VoteMatch quiz. Our staff and volunteers include political activists from such diverse places as South Dakota, New Jersey, Florida, and Hong Kong. We also have technical staff whose politics we insist on never asking about (for that matter, we don't ask about our volunteers' politics either!).

Q: What about AmericansElect.org's controversy?

A: AmericansElect is, in effect, a third party -- their mission is to nominate a non-partisan ticket for president in an online convention and online primary vote (where their primary rule is that the presidential candidate and the vice-presidential candidate have opposing partisan viewpoints). The primary controversy surrounding AmericansElect is that, because they are not a formal party, they have no legal requirement to disclose their funding sources. Accordingly, openness and transparency were a core goal of their website content and political process, since they were accused of a lack of openness and transparency in their funding process. OnTheIssues contracted with AmericansElect to provide issue stances for 600 possible candidates for nomination for the presidency and vice-presidency in 2012 -- we did so in an inherently open and transparent manner (all political conclusions are backed up with verifiable processes and citations). As with our own volunteers and staff, we have no concern about the politics of AmericansElect's funders, nor did we ever ask. We note also that AmericansElect never asked any of our staff about our political viewpoints even though we provided them with their primary political content -- that made us trust them a lot, and we think the public should trust them too. We note finally that AmericansElect's critics were all members of the mainstream media and the political pundit class -- the same people who harm democracy by conspiring to hide candidates' issues -- and the very people who would be most harmed by the success of a new political process like that of AmericansElect. AmericansElect failed to reach their self-imposed goal of the number of online participants by their self-imposed spring 2012 deadline, and hence backed out of the process. We have no ongoing contractual arrangement with AmericansElect, but we hope they try again in 2016 and we would certainly bid on providing their issue content again.

Q: Who are your competitors?

A: We do not compete with the mainstream media, and we do not compete with political pundits (both of those are discussed below). We do have some competitors, however. We consider VoteSmart.org the "granddaddy of the political Internet" -- they pre-dated us by a few years and still have a fine service. They include much more detailed material than we do -- we summarize whereas they provide original source material; we select only the most relevant votes whereas they provide a more exhaustive list; we cover candidates early, before the primary, so voters can use us in their primary voting decision, whereas VoteSmart waits until later in the season; we consider our VoteMatch quiz to be "the best 20 minutes I've ever spent online," as one fan put it, whereas VoteSmart's quiz is a several-hour commitment. Another competitor, now defunct, was called "DNet.org" (for "Democracy Network"), created by the League of Women Voters. They took input directly from campaigns, to allow side-by-side comparison between candidates, and focused on more local races than is possible for OnTheIssues.org. We mourned their loss several years ago and we encourage activists to push their local League to reinstate DNet.org. We've mentioned thomas.loc.gov, the Library of Congress' legislative archive, and in a sense they are a "competitor" because they contain much of the same information as OnTheIssues. Most importantly, we welcome competitors, because unlike businesses who are hurt by competitors, we consider our competition to be synergistic -- the more serious political issues websites that exist, the better for democracy.

Q: What has changed in political coverage since 1999?

A: In 1999, campaign websites were a rarity, whereas now they are such a requirement that many campaigns announce their existence by opening a website. Similarly, the Internet has made self-publishing books much easier and cheaper -- and hence many candidates publish issue books, where a decade ago, they would have only published campaign pamphlets. But the most important change has been the advent of videos on the Internet, which were too big and too slow for widespread use prior to the 2008 presidential race. Everyone can watch the actual debates now, whether they happen to be available at the time of broadcast or not -- and hence no voter need rely on newspapers' lousy coverage of debates (just publish the transcript! we don't want your opinions on who looked better or who got more applause!). The advent of Internet video has made our task harder, because in the "olden days" of 2006 when the Internet was text-oriented, most debates were transcribed, whereas after that we had to transcribe them ourselves. Political pundits, partisan bashing, and lousy mainstream media coverage -- those were just as much a disservice to democracy in 1999 as they are now -- they will not change until we citizens force them to. The Internet has also matured so that websites like OnTheIssues have become very easy to find amid the clutter of political punditry -- a trend we hope continues!

Q: How are you different than the "mainstream media"? Do they like OTI?

A: The mainstream news media provide news -- focusing on what is "new" -- while we provide an archive. Many newspapers and TV newsrooms use OnTheIssues as an information source -- for example, the Washington Post's librarian has written to us as a website user -- because we have a very large and constantly-growing archive of voting records and issue stances. We strive to stay up-to-date, but we leave to the newspapers and TV news reporting about the daily shenanigans of campaigns. When deciding to cover an issue, we ask ourselves, "Will voters two years from now care about this issue?" and if not, we don't cover it. While many in the mainstream media use OTI, we don't really care if they like us -- our target audience are citizens and voters. We're happy if the mainstream media use us, because if they do so, they will perform closer to their proper role in American society. We do respect SOME members of the mainstream media -- political debates are usually organized by large news organizations, and we consider debates as integral to democracy. We also applaud news shows that question candidates and who dig up past promises -- that too is integral to democracy. The old joke goes:
  • How can you tell when a politician is lying?
  • Whenever his lips are moving!

    The OTI addendum to that rule is:
  • How can you tell when the mainstream media is harming democracy?
  • Whenever they blindly report what the politicians say!

Q: Do political pundits like OTI?

A: By "political pundits" we mean those who opine as "talking heads" on TV or who populate the blogosphere with "political analysis"-- we feel they are doing a great disservice to American democracy. The proper role in a democracy for political analysts is to explore candidates' opinions and how they would apply in the future; to draw out candidates' stances when they are reluctant to enunciate them; and to compare candidates' current stances with their past promises and voting records -- that is not what the vast majority of political pundits do! They comment on the "horse race": who is ahead this week and who has "momentum" for next week; they analyze charisma and appearance and personality, as if elections were popularity contests or beauty pageants. And the worst are pundits who claim expertise because they publish tell-all books about the insider process in campaigns or in Washington -- these books that supposedly epitomize American politics are, in our opinion, the worst aspect of American politics. We think pundits should not engage in punditry at all -- it is bad for democracy -- and we applaud those few pundits who disavow politics for real policy analysis. We also think that voters should ignore any pundit who has not run for political office -- experience "in the arena" should be the most basic qualification for anyone opining on national television. (Full disclosure: one of our founders, Jesse Gordon, has formal training as a political pundit, holding a Master's degree in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- but obviously he places himself in the class of pundits who disavow politics for policy! -- and Mr. Gordon ran for City Council in Cambridge Massachusetts in 2005, losing by a respectable 500 votes).

Q: Do campaigns and candidates like OTI?

A: Incumbents dislike OnTheIssues because we expose their voting records, and because we force them to explain broken campaign promises to their constituents. Challengers often like OnTheIssues, because we treat them equally with incumbents, giving them equal space on our VoteMatch quiz and on our issues pages (and since we cover incumbents' voting records, we generally give challengers MORE space for individual issue stances). Generally, the more outside the establishment a candidate, the more they like us -- which is why we were founded -- to provide a voice for those outside the establishment. Wise campaign consultants, even those in establishment campaigns, do use us for "opposition research" -- to see what their opponents say.

Q: So who does like OTI?

A: Voters and citizens -- the people who really matter! We suggest citizens check our website before every election, whether they are voting in that election or not, to see how the winner and losers stand on the relevant issues of that race. We suggest that everyone read our website before watching a campaign debate -- both for background on the issues themselves, and to see the candidates' basic stances. We try to make that sort of "citizen research" as easy as possible -- you can search for us on Google or any search engine (just type a candidate's name and an issue, and we usually appear in the top results); you can search within our website in more detail; you can purchase our issue-oriented books on Amazon (search for "On The Issues Jesse Gordon"); and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter, where we post regular updates. Join us in the fight to maintain democracy!

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