Tangling on the Web
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.