AUSTIN, Texas - John McCain is looking a little wired these days.
The Arizona Republican is beefing up his online campaign to try to compete with Barack Obama - who built the most sophisticated online operation in political history as he rose to the Democratic nomination - as the two begin a race that could define how the Internet plays in future campaigns.
“In 2004, the Internet was allowed into the conference room but sat in the back. In 2006 it was actually seated at the table. But in 2008, it’s at the front of the table holding the agenda,” said Andrew Rasiej, a political analyst who runs the Web site techPresident.com, a site that tracks how candidates use the Web and how Internet users are affecting the campaign.
McCain isn’t trying to take on Obama’s dominance social networking sites such as Facebook or match the clever YouTube videos Obama backers have created. His approach instead focuses on “new media” - bloggers and other nontraditional journalists.
McCain is hiring Web consultants, meeting with bloggers twice a week, spending only a fraction of his rival’s budget on Internet ads, and sending his supporters to Web sites to spread his message themselves.
Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, spends tens of millions on Internet ads, leans on the power of liberal groups such as ActBlue to raise money online, and sends his message directly to supporters through millions of supporters on Facebook, YouTube and MySpace, as well as through an active e-mail campaign.
“Barack Obama is literally leapfrogging over the mainstream media,” Rasiej said.
All this paves the way to a historic online matchup in November, experts say.
“There’s no getting around the fact that there’s a stark difference between their approaches to new media,” said Jeff Emanuel, a new media expert with The Patriot Group and director emeritus of Redstate.com, a key national conservative site that raises money and pushes conservative causes. “While Senator McCain didn’t come out of the gate with quite so savvy an Internet campaign, he is surrounding himself by people who do know the new media very well and can steer the campaign in the right direction. You’ve seen the improvement in the last few weeks and months.”
McCain’s Web site highlights featured blogs of the day, along with “talking points” for readers who want to shop the McCain message to bloggers.
The recently redesigned JohnMcCain.com sells T-shirts with the site’s address on the sleeve and features a game and a video of the “Straight Talk Express” bus that mimics the popular “Cribs” series on MTV.
Michael Goldfarb, the former online editor for the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, has joined the campaign. Patrick Hynes, who is in charge of “blogger outreach,” is a new media consultant, and founder of the Ankle Biting Pundits blog, formerly known as “Crush Kerry.”
And most prominent of all, the candidate’s daughter, Meghan McCain, has kept up the McCain Blogette since last fall, offering a behind-the-scenes look at campaign travels from a young-hipster perspective.
“This is a very talented group of people, albeit under-staffed compared to Obama’s double-digit online staff, and not always integrated into the campaign at the highest levels,” conservative blogger and political pundit Patrick Ruffini said recently on his blog, The New Right.
“When the McCain campaign has decided to own a space - whether it’s been search advertising, blogger outreach and actually good campaign blogging - they have dominated it,” he said.
Repeated calls to the McCain and Obama campaigns for comment were declined.
The blog-focused approach draws on McCain’s experience with more traditional TV and radio messages, but staffers also hope it can reach McCain supporters who, in the words of Goldfarb, “don’t exactly have a reputation for online enthusiasm.”
Compared with the youth-dominated MySpace and Facebook, a broader age group reads blogs. And e-mail and Web sites are still the most popular way to get political information online, particularly among older voters, studies show.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was trying to woo the same demographic in her battle with Obama. But after Super Tuesday, when news broke that she’d loaned her campaign $5 million, her supporters burst the gates, her campaign’s Internet director said.
Online donations poured in, organizing campaigns sprouted, pro-Clinton blogs took off, and there was a new emphasis on her Web site - to the point where her supporters at rallies would shout the Web address like a chant.
“Every candidate has a different online footprint because they have different constituencies and supporters,” said Peter Daou, Internet director for the Clinton campaign. “With Senator Clinton, as became quite apparent toward the end, her core supporters included older voters and lower-income voters who were not traditional Internet users. We worked all during 2007 to find her supporters who were not part of the netroots, bring them to the Web and build communities, and that all paid dividends when she announced her loan and online fundraising broke wide open.”
Despite McCain’s efforts, Democrats are much stronger on using the Internet for online organizing, said Emanuel, the conservative writer. But this election will test “how much of a factor the online community plays in swaying voters either way,” said Jason Mattera, spokesman for the Young America’s Foundation, a nonprofit group that tries to win young people over to conservative causes.
“Even if I didn’t think it would play a huge role this election, I would certainly be a part of it because, without a doubt, it’s going to play a role in future elections,” he said.