The Internet Now Center Stage for
U.S. Presidential Campaigns
Just a decade and a half after its public debut, the Internet has
become an essential medium for American politics. Campaigning on the
burgeoning computer network took a major step forward in 2004, with
former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's online bid for the Democratic
Presidential nomination. Now, a crowded field of candidates in the
2008 presidential campaign is relying heavily on the Internet to connect
with the nation's voters.
Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton's long-anticipated entry into the
2008 Presidential campaign came not at a news conference or political
rally, but in a brief, well-crafted video streamed to the nation and
the world over the Internet.
As Senator Clinton and a growing roster of candidates gear up to compete
for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, they are finding the
Internet, more precisely, the World Wide Web, to be a relatively cheap,
highly effective, and largely unregulated medium for communicating
with potential voters. The growing importance of the Web in America's
political life, for both candidates and voters, is due in part to
the rapid spread of high-speed, broadband network connections in American
homes, and the fact that a growing portion of the American public
considers the Web a primary source of information.
"We did a survey after the 2006 elections in America and found
that the role of the Internet was growing as an important news source
and information source for people that cared about politics, "
says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and
American Life Project. Rainie adds the Web is also, increasingly,
the way Americans communicate about politics. "They trade e-mails
and other kinds of exchanges, talking about the candidates and the
Rainie believes that Internet video, which is already in wide use
on most candidates' web sites, is becoming an essential fixture of
the 2008 presidential campaign. Even before officially launching his
campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Former Massachusetts
Governor Mitt Romney created a website filled with videos outlining
his position on national issues, and slick promotional messages touting
Romney as presidential material.
It's this one-on-one connection to voters through their personal computers
that makes the Internet so valuable to politicians, according to Rhodes
Cook. He's the editor of the Rhodes Cook Letter, an esteemed online
digest of political and election analysis.
Cook says today's Internet-based campaign messages are a far cry from
traditional radio and TV ads, where the candidates' statements are
reduced to brief soundbites and then argued over by political pundits.
"On the Internet, the candidate is able to control what he says
completely to the voters, who will be watching on the Internet,"
says Cook. "So it is a very appealing means of connecting with
voters that I think all of the candidates will be using in 2007 and
Cook notes candidates from both major parties are also using the Internet
to raise the millions of dollars needed to finance a national presidential
But Cook warns that while the Internet provides political campaigners
with a powerful new tool, it can be a double-edged sword. "The
Internet is multiplying the number of things that could be seen, not
only favorable things, but also any mistakes or missteps the candidates
make. These can be instantly transmitted across the Internet,"
he says. "It raises exponentially the chances for problems for
candidates being magnified and shown to voters before they have any
chance of correcting them.
That's what happened to former Republican Senator George Allen of
Virginia, once thought a likely contender for the White House. Speaking
at a re-election campaign rally last August, Allen aimed what many
took to be ethnic slurs at one of his rival's campaign workers, a
dark-skinned Virginia man who was videotaping the event.
The widely-viewed Internet video of Allen's use of the term macaca,
a racial slur sometimes used against African immigrants, may have
cost Allen the November election. And his loss to a Democrat helped
tip the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.
Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life
Project says that all the 2008 presidential candidates understand
very well now that the Internet has moved center stage, and merged
with traditional print, radio and television to become an integral
part of a national media campaign:
"People read newspapers online, people view TV videos online,
so, to some degree, the difference that existed between those channels
will probably begin to vanish in voters mind," Rainie says.
Lee Rainie predicts the most effective Internet campaigners will be
candidates who can move beyond Web videos and tap into the medium's
powerful interactive capabilities, finding new ways to engage American
voters in live conversations about the country's future.
Last month, in her Internet video announcing the formation of a presidential
exploratory committee, Senator Hillary Clinton made it clear she understands
the interactive power of the Internet to connect candidates with voters
in a way no democracy has ever before. "While I can't visit everyone's
living room, I can try," she said. "And with a little help
from modern technology, I'll be holding live online video chats this
week, starting Monday. So let the conversation begin. I have a feeling
it's going to be very interesting."