Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Tangling on the Web

By Shawn Healy
The Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week of the presidential candidates' respective web presence. Not surprisingly, they found that Senator Barack Obama has a significant advantage over his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, although the gap has closed in recent weeks. The study focused on both campaign web sites, but also the degree to which the two candidates are supported on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. I'll review a few highlights of the survey, then commence upon my own investigation of the candidates' web sites.

In an election where some expect the candidates' Internet presence to play a pivotal role for the first time, the Project for Excellence in Journalism has provided a great service through their investigation. True, many skeptics remain, contending that the Internet remains a mecca for the young who tend to be the most fickle political participants. Likewise, old media options such as television advertising continue to play the most prominent role in this general election portion of the campaign, and phone banks are operated in earnest with only 46 days and counting remaining until Election Day. Door-to-door canvassing continues to hold sway, too.

However, what is different in the way in which all three of these practices are now facilitated. Television adds are disseminated via the candidates' web sites and YouTube. Indeed, many are never aired on the networks unless picked up by television news stations, effectively providing free air time. Phone banking has become as simple as logging on to the candidates' web site, using provided talking points, and dialing numbers on one's personal cell phone. Even knocking on doors has assumed a Digital Age bearing, as Obama's web site assists with map generation and even provides plans for grass roots organizing.

Both campaigns offer social networking sites of their own, arguably the latest manifestation of grass roots organizing. MyBarackObama has been in place for months, while McCainSpace is a recent creation, but both rely upon similar technologies. Obama leads McCain by a 6-1 margin in terms of MySpace friends, and a 5-1 margin on Facebook. Obama's YouTube channel subscriber lead is even more substantial: 11-1.

Obama has used text messages liberally throughout his campaign, most famously announcing his VP in this fashion, while McCain reroutes visitors to the Republican National Committee web site to sign up for text message alerts. Both sites feature live blogging, and the McCain site actually encourages supporters to blog on its behalf on targeting sites.

Both host online stores where supporters essentially make donations to the campaign in the case of Obama, and the RNC in McCain's case given that he accepted federal money for the general election and the restrictions attached. Obama has famously used the Internet as a chief fundraising tool and features it prominently on his web site. Indeed, it's the landing page and speaks to his risk of going at it alone, a first for a candidate during the modern era of campaign finance laws. The irony here is that McCain was the first pioneer of online fundraising during his insurgent run for president in 2000. He paved the way for his opponent in 2008.

McCain and Obama feature their own bios prominently on their web sites, along with those of their wives and running mates. This is a traditional feature, along with news clips of campaign coverage that shows the candidates in a positive light. Obama is more apt to link to actual news coverage, while McCain relies more heavily on press releases, though this has changed since the addition of Governor Sarah Palin to the ticket. As detailed in my "Pass the Pundits" series, each candidate provides a menu of issue positions, though Obama's tend to be more detailed and even compiled in the form of brief position papers for downloading and printing. McCain, to his credit, has added detail to his platform, but still lags behind Obama in this respect.

Both have formed electoral coalitions and feature them prominently on their web sites, be they "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for Obama" or "Sportsmen for McCain." Obama has even made a play for former supporters of vanquished rival Senator Hillary Clinton, thanking her for her barrier-breaking campaign and offering an olive branch of sorts.

Altogether, the Obama campaign clearly has made a more conscious effort to make their web presence central to the campaign. For much of this cycle, McCain's online efforts appeared to be little more than an afterthought, but it, too, has recently embraced the opportunities a strong Internet presence offers. True, Obama's base of younger supporters is more wired into these new media options, but it also represents fertile ground for McCain to make inroads amongst this cohort and the increasing number of middle-age and older Americans who use the web as a source of political information and a means by which to engage in the process.

The success of their respective efforts will be evaluated in the epitaph for this campaign, but during the stretch run, it is safe to say that the electoral landscape has changed and a candidate's web site represents much more than an online brochure; indeed, it is a means of political transformation.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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