Web 2.0 meets Campaign 2008

Podcasts and videos are among the features found on the interactive websites of US presidential candidates.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Go to www.YouTube.com/emergencycheese and click on the video "Congressman Ron Paul Visits My Dorm Room." There, according to Georgetown student James Kotecki, viewers will see the first-ever interview with a presidential candidate from a college dorm room. They can hear Mr. Paul present his libertarian take on foreign policy, economics, and the Constitution. In the background, the clutter of toiletries atop Mr. Kotecki's dresser adds to the "just dropping by" feel.

To Kotecki, college senior and political video junkie, his YouTubed interview with Paul is what the marriage of Web 2.0 and Campaign '08 should be all about: interactivity. Candidate-to-voter communication should be a two-way street, he says, not just one-way pronouncements.

Of course, most voters aren't going to have half-hour, one-on-one chats with presidential candidates. And chances are Kotecki, who aggressively courts candidate attention via YouTube, will find it much harder to land interviews with top-tier hopefuls like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York or former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R). If nothing else, a dorm-room drop-by probably doesn't fit the presidential image they're trying to project. But there's no doubt that interaction with voters – aided and amplified by still-unfolding Web innovations – is the name of the game in the 2008 presidential race.

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Peter Daou, Internet director for the Clinton campaign, has watched the trajectory up close for years; he ran online outreach for John Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004. Interactivity "was important then, obviously," Mr. Daou says. "What has changed is the mechanisms to do it have become far more robust, more commonplace, more popular."

Onetime Democratic candidate Howard Dean's cutting-edge use of the Internet four years ago, as a way to raise big money fast, organize volunteers, and communicate with supporters, now looks downright quaint. And, analysts note, Mr. Dean's ultimate flameout as a presidential contender early in the 2004 primaries shows that success on the Web does not guarantee actual votes.

The same may hold true today. Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, at least, hopes not. He blew away the competition in both parties by raising $6.9 million from 50,000 contributors online during the first quarter of 2007.

Web expands playing field

What's clear is that the advent of Web 2.0 – the wave of social-networking, file-sharing, and collaborative sites that have come into common use – has expanded the playing field for presidential candidates in ways that were unthinkable just a few years ago.

Wherever there are people, there will be politics. That's why candidates have flocked to set up pages on MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. In the 6-million-member Second Life cyberworld, presidential candidates have "offices," organized by volunteers who keep in touch with the official campaigns. MySpace will push the envelope in Web-based politics when it conducts its own presidential primary on Jan. 1 and 2, 2008 – just before the real primaries begin. With 64 million MySpace members being asked to vote, that's a contest the candidates cannot ignore.

"The battlefield for the '08 election will be online, more so than ever before," says Michael Pond, media analyst at Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Aside from establishing Web presences on outside social-networking sites, the campaigns have sought to turn their own sites into hubs of interactivity. They solicit donations, recruit volunteers, and facilitate organization of events. They host blogs, with the candidates themselves making occasional posts. They upload videos that show viewers what it's like to be out on the campaign trail. Some offer RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds, run surveys, and solicit ideas on policy. Three candidate sites provide a voter registration link.

Features on candidates' websites

One, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, sponsors a separate site called Headtohead08.com, which posts videos of Democratic candidates' statements on issues and allows viewers to compare. The Clinton campaign runs a stand-alone site called ICanBePresident.com, aimed at parents who want to show their kids – girls in particular – that anyone can become president.

And at least one candidate has run a contest: During the NCAA basketball tournament, Republican Sen. John McCain's in-house networking site, McCainSpace, ran a pool and awarded a McCain 2008 fleece jacket, hat, and pin to the top scorers.

The most elaborate Web sites, not surprisingly, are run by the campaigns that took in the most money in the first quarter of 2007, says Christine Williams, a professor of political science at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. Web staff and consultants, after all, don't come cheap.

"What's a surprise is that all the candidates have Web sites that are reasonably developed, by Web standards, so early in the campaign," says Ms. Williams, who along with a colleague has analyzed all the presidential candidates' websites.

So far, Williams is seeing a lot of experimentation, and she expects other campaigns to duplicate the features that catch on. Aside from McCain's NCAA bracket contest, she cites other unique features on candidate sites: Mr. Giuliani offers state-by-state talk radio information; Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut allows visitors to create audio testimonials; Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) of California offers podcasts.

Web traffic: Democrats vs. GOP

In the early going, the Democrats are beating the Republicans hands down in attracting traffic to their sites, according to Nielsen ratings. In January, the top site overall was Clinton's, with 828,000 unique visitors, followed by that of Senator Obama, with 574,000, and former Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina in third place, with 464,000. In February, the Democrats still held the top three slots, but the order changed – Senator Obama (773,000), Clinton (398,000), and Mr. Edwards (252,000).

Traffic to Clinton's site spiked when she entered the race in January, as it did to Obama's when he formally announced in February. The challenge for all the sites is to keep visitors coming back. But Republicans have been slow to get people to visit even once. McCain topped the GOP ratings with only 296,000 unique visitors in January and 226,000 in February. (Go to www.Alexa.com for data on traffic to all sites.)

By another measure, antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich, a congressman from Ohio, is the top Democratic presidential contender. According to Alexa.com, Mr. Kucinich is the most "linked in," meaning he has the most websites (729) linking to his campaign site. The second most linked is Clinton, with 178.

Does the Democrats' early advantage in overall Web traffic mean they're in better shape than the GOP to win the presidency in 2008? Not necessarily, analysts say. But the numbers do provide a window into what polls already show – that Democratic voters are more engaged in the campaign early on than are Republicans.

"There's more enthusiasm on the Democratic side, and also the collection of groups known as the netroots has been far more active, fueled by antiwar sentiment," says Michael Cornfield, an expert on online politics at nonpartisan ElectionMall Technologies, Inc. "It's the subject of very candid and rueful discussion among online activists on the right."

Christian Ferry, online director for the McCain campaign, says that Republicans have a lot of outlets for talking about issues – including an extensive array of talk radio shows – and so partisan comparisons about Web use need to be considered in the larger media context.

Still, he says, "the conservative blogosphere is really picking up in activity, and Republicans are very active online."

Rise of Internet politics

The rise of Internet politics began in the mid-1990s and has been growing ever since. The number of people relying on the Internet for political news jumped from 7 percent to 15 percent between the 2002 and 2006 midterm elections and grew fivefold in the past 10 years, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The rise of the Web also poses risks for politicians. Just ask former Sen. George Allen (R) of Virginia, who made a racial comment that was caught on video and posted on YouTube last summer, marking the beginning of the end of his reelection campaign. Today, candidates are forewarned.

"I assume there's a camera there at all times, because you have to," McCain said in a recent interview with YouTube's news and politics editor. But that did not prevent him from singing "Bomb Iran" to the tune of Beach Boys song "Barbara Ann" when asked what to do about Iran. Another made-for-YouTube moment was born.

Candidates are also having a hard time controlling their "brand" on the Web. On big sites like MySpace, some candidates have both official and unofficial pages. When the Obama campaign recently took control of a volunteer's MySpace page carrying the senator's name, the dustup created bad publicity for Obama.

Will Web draw in new voters?

But the ultimate question remains to be answered: In a nation notorious for low voter turnout, will the Web succeed in bringing Americans into the process who would otherwise have stayed out? Or would the growing numbers of people getting their politics via the Web be politically active anyway?

That question has been around for a decade, and now, with the development of Web 2.0, is being asked anew. Indeed, voter turnout has risen in recent elections, but there are many variables at play. Turnout expert Curtis Gans attributes the recent rise to polarization – specifically over President Bush and Iraq – not the Web.

Bruce Bimber, an expert on technology and politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes the jury is still out regarding the Web's ability to stimulate new engagement in politics. "So far, no one's shown it to be true, but no one's shown it not to be true," he says.

Hope for youth turnout

The growth of the Web's social-networking aspects had spurred particular hopes for driving up turnout among young adults, as the demographic most comfortable with new technologies. But Kotecki, the soon-to-be Georgetown grad with a following on YouTube, believes the desire for interaction with candidates is universal.

"I think the hunger for a real dialogue – for someone to speak directly to the voters, without a media consultant standing between them and what they're saying – is palpable no matter how old you are," he says. "Once politicians start to do this, it will resonate with people."

This just up: Late Friday afternoon, Kotecki posted a new presidential candidate interview on YouTube called "Senator Mike Gravel Visits My Dorm Room." It looks like Kotecki has straightened up his dresser.

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