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To the White House, via the Web

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-10-24

Can battalions of techno savvy cyber-nerds really make – or break – an election?

Jan. 24, 2008 -- From an icy, Iron Lady drilling her soulless minions, to a vulnerable woman choking back tears over a steaming cup of coffee, the transformation of Hillary Clinton was absolute.

And it was there, for all to see on TV, and again and again and again – if one so desired - on the Internet.

The full impact of the changeover though came on the night of Jan. 8, when candidate Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, beating her popular Democratic rival, Barack Obama, and taking pollsters, pundits and even her campaign staff by surprise.

Clinton’s first primary victory had analysts and ordinary Americans going back to the videotape, replaying – courtesy the video-sharing site, YouTube - her pre-poll tearing-up moment in New Hampshire.

The 2008 US presidential election has been called “the YouTube election” –with some justification. With a host of new online tools aiding user-generated content on the Web, candidates in the 2008 race have been exposed to unprecedented levels of scrutiny – and ridicule.

Hillary rails, sings, laughs and cries on YouTube

Ever since she launched her campaign in Jan. 2007, with the words, ‘I’m in,” posted on her Web site, Clinton has been the most pilloried Democratic presidential candidate on the Internet.

When a mike at an Iowa event caught her singing the US national anthem in an utterly toneless falsetto, YouTube erupted into a rash of ‘Hillary singing’ video spoofs. There are videos offering renditions of her familiar – if a little grating – laugh. There are spoofs of her speeches, policy proposals, campaign song and even a couple of ‘Hillary farts’ videos.

At times, the online video contest between candidates has crossed the line. In March ’07, when a video titled, “Vote Different” first appeared on YouTube, it created a stink within the Clinton campaign and quite a bit of consternation in Obama’s camp as well.

A parody of a 1984 Apple ad, the video featured a gigantic screen with an Orwellian close-up of Clinton addressing gray-faced soldiers. Clinton’s droning monologue is finally stopped when an athlete smashes the omnipresent screen with a hammer. At the end of the clip, the Apple logo mutates into an ‘O’ below which, a “barackobama.com” title appears.

The reaction to the clip was swift and strong. Within days, the clip “went viral,” with Internet users across the world sharing the video. While the Clinton campaign cried foul, Obama was quick to note that it was the work of an over-enthusiastic supporter, not an official ad.

‘Old school’ strategy in the new media age

But for Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident, a New York-based company tracking the presidential poll online, the “Vote Different” video effectively highlighted Clinton’s “old school” communication style.

“Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been as top-down as it comes,” says Rasiej. “2008 has been a year of voter-generated content, but she’s used the Internet like traditional TV. Her campaign has fundamentally ignored the bottom-up nature of the Internet.”

In sharp contrast, Obama, has been the darling of the politically wired set. His online campaign staff includes Chris Hughes, who helped develop what would become Facebook, the popular social networking site, while still a sophomore at Harvard University.

“Obama has used the tools of the Internet most effectively by using grassroots support,” says Rasiej. “He has effectively turned over his online popularity to individual supporters, who in turn create their own blogs, videos, emailed messages – it’s a far more open, democratic use of the Internet.”

One of the first presidential candidates to tap into the networking potential of Facebook and MySpace, Obama’s official Web site allows supporters to create their own events and fundraisers across the world. His official campaign site, www.barackobama.com, has consistently topped market share figures among the key presidential campaign sites. Despite his failure in New Hampshire, his site had 23.5% of total market share in the week ending Jan. 12, according to Hitwise, the leading New York-based online tracking service. His nearest rival had 18% of the total share.

Tapping small donors online

Obama’s online fundraising has been the stuff of cyber legends. While Clinton’s record fundraising has come from a few, big donors, the Illinois senator’s funds have rolled in from hundreds of thousands of small donors. In the first quarter of 2007 alone, Obama raised at least $25 million, mostly from online donors. By mid-Jan this year, his campaign had exceeded its goal of tapping into 100,000 individual donors. The site has since upped its target to 125,000 donors.

Targeting small online donors is a particularly effective political strategy, says Rob Wicks, a political media expert at the University of Arkansas. “If you get ordinary people to donate a small amount, it’s an indication that you’ve probably won them over,” he explains. “Unlike big donors who donate to a number of campaigns, a small donor who gives you $50 if very likely to vote for you.”

What’s more, small donors contribute far less than the legal limit of $2,000 per individual, notes Wicks, so they can be tapped repeatedly during a campaign cycle.

The rise – and fall – of the ‘Deaniacs’

It was Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who first exploited the fundraising potential of the Internet.

Back in the days before Facebook and YouTube, Dean pioneered techniques of online political campaigning that has since been adopted by all the 2008 candidates with varying degrees of success.

During the 2004 race, Dean’s loyal band of online volunteers – dubbed “Deaniacs” – mobilized young voters for the first time in cyber and real- meetings, online forums and fundraisers.

But in the end, Dean’s online revolution was a bust. And most critics agree that it was “the old media” that inadvertently took the wind out of the former Vermont governor’s new media sails.

Hours after Dean’s concessionary speech after the Iowa caucus, US TV networks began replaying a clip of a red-faced, hollering Dean – what came to be known as ‘the Dean scream.’ For most Americans, the message was clear: the candidate from Vermont was ‘unpresidential’ at best, unhinged at worst.

‘The Ron Paul juggernaut’

For many analysts, Dean’s 2004 fall from grace exposes the risks of overemphasizing the power of the Internet in political campaigns.

On the Republican side for instance, the candidate who has dominated the Internet, accounting for more Facebook and MySpace supporters, YouTube subscribers, Google searches and web site hits than any other Republican candidate is a man who’s hardly known outside the rarefied world of politico-tech nerds.

Ron Paul, a Texan Congressman and physician, has captured the support of such a loyal and incessantly wired set of enthusiasts with his straight talking anti-war, anti-big government message that many media polls and experts are forced to spike his data from their analyses.

His Internet ratings are so high that analysts fear the data will skewer their projections. Paul’s campaign site for instance, accounts for almost 36% of the total market share for Republican candidate Web sites, according to Hitwise data for the week ending Jan. 12.

Paul consistently dominates the top 10 election stories on tech-oriented news aggregating sites such as Digg. His poll victories – 87% in the ABC post-debate poll, for example – have been so extraordinary that some experts suspect his supporters of online rigging.

But the truth, as Josh Harkinson, reporting for the San Francisco-based monthly, Mother Jones, notes, is that: “At the core of the Ron Paul juggernaut are thousands of obsessive techies for whom online organizing is not a special effort, but second nature.”

The power of ‘old media’

But legions of cyber-nerds, as Dean learned in 2004, does not an election victory make. “A good online campaign cannot be a replacement for traditional media,” cautions Wicks. “There’s no question about it: without a very good and careful use of traditional media, candidates aren’t going to get very far.”

And that’s something candidate Clinton happily discovered after the New Hampshire race. In the end, it was the female voters – including the “little old ladies” – who came through for her.

Despite the sheer volume of “pillory Hillary” content online and the damning Big Brother taunts on YouTube, she appealed to New Hampshire voters when she finally displayed her softer side. What’s more, this display was taken up by the major networks, who in turn replayed it continuously during their pre-primary coverage, reaching an audience that does not have access, time or inclination to comb and cull their information from the Web.

But with months to go before the final November poll, it’s still too soon to say if the young, wired set has the numbers to twist the political tide. Or whether the hi-tech arsenal of user-generated video, networking, blogging and cyber-events will ultimately constitute just one of the many factors in effective political campaigning.

Date created : 2008-01-29

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