Monday, November 3, 2008

The U.S. election may be decided by the power of the web

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The 2008 US election promises freshness and change. It’s the first time in more than 50 years that neither candidate has already been president or vice president. And, when the votes are counted next week, either the first African-American will be elected president or the first woman will be elected vice-president. But will it also be the first election decided on the strength of a candidate’s online campaign?

It’s possible. Both candidates are putting serious effort into reaching out to internet users via social networks, YouTube and Second Life. The smear campaigns have, predictably, found a supportive habitat online, but there are some more surprising election-related initiatives. Go to John McCain’s website and you can play Pork Invaders, a version of Space Invaders with a message about wasteful government spending. Alternatively, play Guitar Hero 3 or The Incredible Hulk online and you’ll see in-game ads for Barack Obama.

Whether all this will have any bearing on the eventual result is debatable. After all, as Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University, says: “All the gadgets, widgets, web pages, and videos in the world really don’t matter if you can’t turn out voters.”

Both parties are trying to harness the internet for one purpose - to attract and influence new and floating voters. In the most expensive presidential battle in US history, much has been made of candidates raising money via the internet. But the cash raised online is simply reinvested in the quest to win votes, quite often using traditional media.

“Campaigns seem most interested in using new tools to do old tactics faster, more efficiently, and for less money,” says Germany. “A lot of us hope that the internet will open up the political process, make it more accessible for ordinary people to run for office. But this election has shown almost the opposite. It’s shown that campaigns can use the guise of openness and tech-savviness to raise insane amounts of money that they re-invest in television advertising.”

Democratic campaign advertisements ridicule the 72-year-old McCain’s admission that he is just learning to go online and has no idea how to email. But, historically, it’s the people who can identify with this that actually vote.

The crude truth is that the people who are most likely to vote appear the least likely to use the internet and vice versa. The social networking generation who have almost grown up online are, as Dutton says, “notoriously poor in turning out for elections”.

But this is a close election and there is a feeling that the edge a successful online campaign can provide - however slight - could bre vital, even if it doesn’t mobilise whole armies of new voters. Early indications are promising. Young voter turnout tripled in the Iowa caucus, says Andrew Chadwick, a professor at the University of London.

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If this is the case and a successful online campaign tips the balance in a close election, then which party is proving most effective online? The popular perception is that it’s the Democrats, with Barack Obama a more natural poster boy for the digital generation. Armed with his own social network (, Obama has the endorsement of Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt; is advised by Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist; and has hired a co-founder of Facebook, Chris Hughes, as his campaign’s online co-ordinator. On average, Obama’s website attracts three times as many visitors as McCain’s.

“This time around the Democrats do seem more effective,” suggests Chadwick. “They have been much more innovative in making use of the social networking tools of web 2.0, online video and mobile content.”

If the election was won on how many Facebook friends you have, then Obama (with more than two million to just over 600,000 for McCain) would have it by a landslide. But the election isn’t simply a social networking popularity poll.

“Both parties have the same tricks up their sleeves,” says Germany. “The Democrats get points for style and flash, but the Republicans get points for …?using the internet to enhance their [campaign message].”

And, while McCain is laughed at for his supposed technological illiteracy, MySpace political director Lee Brenner points out that “McCain was the first and only major Republican candidate to participate in our series of Presidential Dialogues before the primaries began”, arguing that he realises the importance of reaching “independent-minded voters that spend so much of their time online”.

But in what ways are these independent-minded voters being influenced? If you look at where the election and internet intersect, it’s viral videos that attract the most attention. Paris Hilton’s tongue-in-cheek response to a McCain campaign advert that featured the celebrity heiress has received more than seven million views on YouTube, while Gina Gershon’s parody of Palin has a million and counting. Impressive audience figures, but it’s worth thinking about whether those watching are eligible to vote. A lot of the audience is international. The more relevant battle may be going on behind the scenes.

“What most people don’t see are the complex backend systems that both campaigns have been using to collect information about supporters, likely supporters, and undecided voters,” says Germany. This sort of behavioural targeted advertising, which both parties are employing, proved significant in the last election.

“Bush’s team did innovate,” says Chadwick. “They focused on a highly targeted, top-down mobilisation approach based on software called Voter Vault which made extensive use of tailored databases, some of which were extremely sensitive to local electoral dynamics.”

Whether this will have an actual effect on the final result is still unclear. What is clear is that the internet is now an unquestionable part of the election process, involved at every level.

“The internet is now firmly embedded in the US electoral process and it isn’t going to go away,” says Chadwick.

“Any politician who thinks they can win an election without effective use of the internet is sorely mistaken.”

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