[22 April 2007]
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
Call It the Youtube Presidential Campaign.
Widespread Internet access is likely to fundamentally change the 2008 presidential race in fundraising, candidate interactions and, most importantly, the messages voters hear. Just five years ago, only 17 percent of American households had broadband Internet connections. Now the figure is nearly half, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Vastly more money will be raised and spent on the Internet this election. And the carefully scripted messages of political campaigns will now have to compete with freewheeling blogs, ads and videos created by individuals who don’t face the same rules about the messages and information they put out.
“There’s a real strong possibility most of what you remember of the `08 campaign is going to be created by voters,” said Michael Turk, Internet director for President Bush’s 2004 campaign.
Already, so-called user-generated content is roiling campaigns. Virginia Republican George Allen, a presidential hopeful who was running for re-election to the U.S. Senate last year, lost after widespread exposure of a videotape of him calling a staffer for his opponent “macaca.”
Two candidates have learned that an unguarded moment can now be seen by millions: YouTube has a video of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton singing the “Star-Spangled Banner” painfully off-key. And fellow Democrat John Edwards brushes his hair at length in a video set to the tune “I Feel Pretty.”
An ad with the big-brother theme of 1984 promoting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois over Clinton is likely the first of many that will captivate millions. The ad was posted on YouTube anonymously, raising an issue about how political discourse could have fewer limits in the Internet era.
Television ads, which will still make up the bulk of the 2008 campaign, must disclose who paid for them and meet content standards because broadcast airwaves are publicly owned and regulated.
But the Internet is different.
“We have a shake-up time ahead of us to figure out what’s appropriate,” said Karen Jagoda, president of the E-Voter Institute in California, a trade group for Web publishers and political consultants who deal with the Internet. “I think a lot of people are going to test the limits. They’re going to put inflammatory messages out there because they can.”
The anti-Clinton-ad creator was outed by a Web site and then tied to the Obama campaign, which had previously disavowed a connection. It turned out it was made by an employee of one of the Obama campaign’s contractors.
That’s a lesson in how the “blogosphere” can be self-policing, even though the Internet doesn’t face the traditional limits on appropriate content, said Jeff Jarvis, a journalism teacher and blogger whose site, PrezVid.com, tracks places such as YouTube.
The rise of the Internet means a loss of message control for both parties, but that’s especially scary for Republicans because they have tightly controlled it in the past, said Turk, a Republican who has not joined a campaign this year.
So far, the Republican candidates aren’t taking advantage of the Internet as much as Democrats. “The Republicans seem to not be getting it online,” he said. “There’s a feeling they don’t want to tinker with the formula and become the New Coke.”
That lack of control over message is wonderful, said David Weinberger, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. The Internet—through blogs, YouTube, interactive town meetings and communication among like-minded citizens—gives voters more say, said Weinberger, who was Howard Dean’s senior Internet adviser and now helps the Edwards campaign. “It’s a better representation of what democracy is supposed to be.”
The Internet will be especially important during a compressed primary for helping candidates reach people in many areas at once. Many states, including Florida, are considering moving their primaries earlier next year.
So many states will be voting on Feb. 5 that candidates who can’t be everywhere at once will be able to use the Internet for town meetings and other connections to voters.
Candidates are embracing the Internet with various methods and levels of enthusiasm. People who track Internet politics say Obama has generated a lot of buzz through his use of social-networking sites such as MySpace—where about 100,000 “friends” are linked to him—and venues such as YouTube. He also has used the Internet to raise money and organize people.
Many candidates are welcoming bloggers to their campaign sites and even blogging themselves. Clinton and others announced their candidacies on the Web first. And many are following the trail blazed by the 2000 John McCain campaign to raise large sums of money quickly.
Turk said his 2004 Bush efforts focused on organizing volunteer efforts, while Democrats such as Dean and John Kerry did better at raising money online. About half of Democrats and one-quarter of Republican donors in 2004 made at least one of their contributions online, according to a study by the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at Washington’s George Washington University.
This time, candidates will need to use the Internet for money and advertising as well as mobilizing support, Turk said.
During the first quarter of this year, Obama, for instance, raised nearly $7 million online—close to the amount candidates raised four years ago from all sources during that time period. And most of it came in small increments well below federal limits on donations, meaning he can go back to those donors and ask for more.
Jagoda said politicians have lagged behind the business world in using the Internet. Online ads are much cheaper than television and can be better targeted to particular groups of voters. And it gives campaigns an option besides “the 50th television ad” that voters will be sick of. “TV is increasingly not the way people are receiving their entertainment or their information,” she said.
But for now, broadcast ads and their vast reach will still eclipse Internet ads, said Evan Tracey of TNSMI/CMG, a media-research company that tracks political ads.
“What gets spent online will be a rounding error compared with television,” he said.
During the 2004 campaign, presidential candidates shelled out $700 million for television ads. Presidential and other candidates combined spent only about $15 million for online ads. That number could double this year, he said.
Ads on the Web are too easy to click past to be effective for swaying voters. But they can be used to reach supporters to convince them to give money.
Last year, about 3 percent of adults gave to a candidate online, said John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew project. The people most likely to create and post videos and other campaign materials are young. But it’s too early to say whether the Internet will induce more young people to vote and get involved in campaigns, he said.
The social-networking site MySpace will have its own online primary next year before the vaunted New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucus. The results will not be any sort of representative sample of voters and won’t win anyone support at the nominating conventions. But the winners will get the benefit of Internet buzz.
“If voting on Sanjaya (Malakar, the former “American Idol” contestant) is on the evening news, you can bet voting on the presidential campaigns on the Internet is,” Jarvis said.