Web’s effect on politics: big bucks, big turnout, and big scandals

Campaigns reach into the online cookie jar – for better or worse

By , Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Marie O'Connor watches a debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton prior to voting online for the Democratic Primary election on "Super Tuesday" last February.
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If you wonder how much the Internet has changed American politics, then consider this: If not for the Web, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would probably be poised to accept the Democratic presidential nomination this August in Denver, and Sen. Barack Obama never would have made it past Super Tuesday.

How can I make such a statement? Easy. In those legendary words of Deep Throat: “Follow the money.” Money is, after all, the fuel that keeps a political campaign going, and no senator has used the Internet more to his advantage than Mr. Obama.

In a year when he continues to break all fundraising records, Obama raked in most of his $265 million from the Internet. The Clinton campaign complained regularly that Obama was outspending it by 2 or 3 to 1 in many states. All that cash came from the Web.

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Consider that when Obama raised $32 million in January – a previously unimaginable total – he only raised 12 percent of the money “offline,” according to Patrick Ruffini of TechPresident, a website that tracks how campaigns use technology. That means $28 million came from mostly small online donations.

And Obama wasn’t the only one turning the political world upside down thanks to his fundraising prowess. Maverick Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul was famous for his one-day Internet fundraisers that would regularly haul in $5 million to $6 million from his online supporters.

But in a sense, Obama, Mr. Paul, and anyone else who relies on the Internet to help fuel their campaigns owe a debt of gratitude to two men: Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who in 2000 was the first political candidate to show that you can use the Web to raise large amounts of money quickly; and former Vermont governor and current Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, who showed in 2004 that coming from a small state without the mainstream media paying much attention to you wasn’t necessarily a problem if you knew how to work the Internet.

But the Web is more than just an avenue to raise money. It allows politicians to connect with younger voters in ways that 10 years ago were unimaginable. One of the big stories of 2008 has been the 30 million new voters, many under age 30, who have registered to vote.

A new study out this week from the Pew Internet and American Life Project shows that a “record-breaking 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet, e-mail, or cellphone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views, and mobilize others.”

The report says that three online activities have been particularly prominent: “First, 35 percent of Americans say they have watched online political videos – a figure that nearly triples the reading the Pew Internet Project got in the 2004 race. Second, 10 percent say they have used social-networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace to gather information or become involved. This is particularly popular with younger voters: Two-thirds of Internet users under the age of 30 have a social-networking profile, and half of these use social-networking sites to get or share information about politics or the campaigns. Third, 6 percent of Americans have made political contributions online, compared with 2 percent who did that during the entire 2004 campaign.”

But there is a caution in all this news – 60 percent of those surveyed say that the “Internet is full of misinformation and propaganda that too many voters believe is accurate.”

Widely circulated e-mails about Obama being a Muslim. Blog postings about Senator McCain not really being an American because he was born near the Panama Canal when it was a US territory. Rumors that Michelle Obama had used racial slurs from the pulpit of Trinity Church. (In an interesting twist how the Internet has helped Obama, the two things that almost cost him the Democratic nomination – the video sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and his comments about bitter voters in rural Pennsylvania – were Web-first stories.)

But while the Internet can hurt you with rumors, it also allows you to respond at lightning speed. Political strategist and Emory University professor Drew Westen says that it’s important not to just sit and take it, or to say “I’m not going to dignify that statement with a response.” It’s essential to fight back hard, as fast as possible, he says. He points to the Obama campaign’s decision to start a new website that deals specifically with the smears floating around on the Internet about him and his wife as one of the smartest things the campaign has done. The only problem, Mr. Westen told ABC News, is the timing. “I would have gone after them [the rumors] the day they first showed up on the Internet,” he said.

One thing is for sure: We’re just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the changes that the Internet will bring to American politics, for better or worse.

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