WASHINGTON—Evidence abounds this presidential election year that the Internet is increasingly competing with TV, newspapers and other traditional media outlets—and sometimes beating them—as a primary source of political news.
The trend is having a big impact on how candidates run their campaigns, and it’s also launched new ways to help trend-spotters measure voter interest in candidates and issues.
At last count, Sen. Barack Obama’s entire, 37-minute speech on race in America had been viewed 3.9 million times on YouTube. That set a record for a presidential candidate video and surpasses the total of people who watch cable news on a typical night.
In Pennsylvania, with less than three weeks to go before the Democratic primary, interest in Obama is surging among Internet users in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but Hillary Clinton rates the higher “Yahoo buzz” in Reading and smaller cities. In New Hampshire, Yahoo searches shifted significantly to Clinton among older Web users just before an upset victory attributed to older voters.
Wondering about the hottest campaign issues? The Iraq war was back at the top of the agenda, at least in March. The war rated more mentions among blog posts than the economy in the past three weeks, according to blogpulse.com, which tracks trends among millions of bloggers. That service is owned by Nielsen, which is doing a lot more these days than tracking TV-viewing habits.
Analyzing blog activity, “Yahoo buzz” and other Web data is still new, and does not have the track record of traditional polling. But it’s becoming more important politically, especially in identifying trends among younger adults.
A survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press in January found that 24 percent of adults get political information from the Internet. For adults younger than 30, the total is 42 percent, higher than cable news (35 percent), a daily newspaper (25 percent) or network news (24 percent).
“The primacy of TV is fading, and candidates and voters don’t need to go through the mainstream media to find each other,” said Lee Rainie, who tracks online trends as project director for the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
As a result, candidates use Web outreach to get their message out, circumventing traditional coverage. The Obama campaign did just that with his major address on race, even releasing a five-minute video preview in the days before the speech.
Presidential candidates have been bound by the shrinking sound bite of TV news for decades. Forty years ago, the average sound bite of a candidate on network news was 43 seconds, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs. By 2004, it shrank to 10.3 seconds.
Now, the millions of people listening to Obama’s full speech online “proves that the sound blast may be more powerful than the sound bite,” said Micah Sifry, a co-founder of techpresident.com, which analyzes online politics.
“People are hungry for substance, they want to go to the source, and they don’t want to be talked down to,” Sifry added. Frequent video sharing and an array of interactive tools means it’s easy to spread “the political message that’s always been the most important—from a friend to a friend.”
But YouTube giveth, and YouTube taketh away. For Obama, the popularity of his unfiltered speech online allowed him to transcend the sound bites and talking heads of cable news. At the same time, though, the speech was conceived to counter the impact of the incendiary sermons of his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright—seen by millions on YouTube.
Steve Grove, director of news for YouTube, cited the growth of YouTube as a forum for candidates and voters, offering more than passive viewing. “It’s interactive and social, and users can consume, rank, respond, create their own videos,” he said.
The candidates are making full use of the new tools. The Obama campaign has uploaded 840 videos to the YouTube/YouChoose Web site, and attracted 42,000 subscribers who get video by e-mail. For Clinton, the totals are 308 videos and 12,000 subscribers; for Republican John McCain, 175 videos and 3,700 subscribers.
Rainie noted that all this Internet activity doesn’t shut out TV and newspapers. Those outlets often provide the content that ends up being consumed, mashed up and dissected online. “Those boundaries between media sources are not crisp and distinct anymore,” he said.
Another way of tracking political interest is through Yahoo’s popular news site with its political dashboard. The data includes “Yahoo buzz,” which represents search activity that showed growing interest in Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee before their underdog wins in Iowa.
Tuesday in Pennsylvania, which holds its primary April 22, Obama was attracting 80 percent of search queries about Democratic candidates on Yahoo to Clinton’s 14 percent. Obama was also leading in North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon and Kentucky. All four of those states have primaries in May.
Among bloggers, blogpulse.com showed a spike in interest in the Iraq war during March, with the fifth anniversary of the invasion and U.S. casualties reaching 4,000. But Yahoo showed interest in the war, as measured by search, dropping 55 percent in the past year, while interest in the U.S. economy more than doubled. Yahoo can slice and dice those numbers by state, city and age groups.
But interpreting those numbers is not easy. Most of the early surge in interest for Obama was positive, noted Alan Warms, Yahoo vice president for news, but much of it now involves Wright and the negative impact of that association. Similarly, much of the recent interest in Clinton focuses on her discredited account of landing in Bosnia under sniper fire as first lady.
“We can’t tell yet what much of this data means—the algorithms aren’t good enough to do that,” Rainie said.
He also warned that many older voters are not online, and that partisans most active in blogs and searches may not be representative of the wider voting population.
But the impact of the Internet on politics will continue to grow, he said, because it’s interactive and conversational, where the only limits are a user’s level of interest.