Virtual Politics Gets Real
Campaigning in the digital world may revolutionize politics as we know it
There's still a year to go before the next U.S. president will be elected and never have the men and women who hope to relocate to Pennsylvania Avenue asked so much of you. You may have been Twittered by Barack Obama, or invited to create a campaign video for Mitt Romney. Perhaps you've gotten text messages from candidates on your cell phone or received campaign updates on your Facebook page.
In the first Web 2.0 presidential election, the candidates are scrambling to find a way to use new
technology to bring in old-fashioned money and votes. In 2004, the Internet was mostly a sideshow to the campaign, with a few office-seekers setting up Web pages and some early success raising money online. This time around, candidates are trying harder to find a successful model for campaigning in the digital world.
"Is this going to be the year that revolutionizes politics?" asks David All, a Republican media and Internet strategist. "Yes, absolutely."
Billions of Ad Dollars at Stake
And yet, for all of the monumental changes in the way campaigns are trying to win over voters online, they're spending money in the same old places. Analysts argue that traditional media, especially broadcast television, will not lose significant campaign ad dollars to the Internet. Campaign Media Analysis Group predicts that broadcast media will receive 70 to 75 percent of all political ad spending in 2008, a record $2.5 billion - and that's their conservative projection. Spending could reach $3 billion, the group says.
"There will be more money spent on Internet this cycle than last cycle, but it'll still be a rounding error compared to TV," says Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which is a division of TNS Media Intelligence.
CMAG also predicts that ad spending by the campaigns will exceed $800 million on the presidential election alone. And if New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters the race, funding his campaign with his vast personal wealth, those numbers could soar higher still.
"I don't think the role of traditional media publicity or ad buying decreases," says Howard Mortman, director of the public affairs practice at Virginia-based New Media Strategies, a group that is advising Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. "It's still very important for a campaign to have a serious press operation. What's different now is there's a new component."
Going Where the Eyeballs Go
Candidates are spending more money sooner, partly because of the glut of earlier state primaries, Tracey says. Iowa voters will go to the polls for that state's primary in mid-January. And so many states have scheduled their primaries for Feb. 5 that it's been dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday."
"They need to be spending more and more and more," All says. "The budget breakdowns aren't going to change. Network TV still has the eyeballs and will continue to do so. But some of those eyeballs have moved elsewhere."
Phil Noble, founder of Politics Online.com argues that campaigns aren't spending more money on Internet advertising because most campaigns still hire media consultants whose fees equal a percentage of the candidate's television buys. The consultants have a strong financial disincentive to recommend cutting back on television spots, he argues.
But Noble also predicts that candidates will spend less and less on traditional media, and more on Internet. Campaigns' bidding for Google ad words - search words entered by users that would prompt candidates' ads - has already become fiercely competitive.
"Clearly the major media brands have huge power and huge influence and that's going to continue," Noble says. "But they'll have less power and less influence than they've had in the past. TV is still the dominant media. But it's not the all-powerful and omniscient media that it once was."
Analysts also predict that cable television, with its ability to reach more specific demographic groups, will also fare well during the campaign.
Tracey and other observers see something of a comeback for radio, boosted by the popularity of satellite broadcasts and Internet radio. This fall, XM Radio launched the first-ever channel devoted entirely to the 2008 presidential race, called POTUS '08. (The name comes from the Secret Service acronym for President of the United States.)
The commercial-free, temporary channel - it will disappear after the election - will provide free airtime to candidates and is free to anyone with an XM radio. C-SPAN teamed up with XM Radio to produce the channel.
But newspapers, already beleaguered by continuing declines in ad revenue, aren't expected to reap many of the election's financial rewards. In a dour August report on the industry, Standard & Poor's said it saw no revenue increases for newspapers in 2008, other than for those companies whose holdings also include broadcast.
Often the line between old media and new media is blurry. An example: TechPresident.com and The New York Times are combining forces on the "Ten Questions" project, where people can vote on video questions they want to ask the candidates. The New York Times editorial board will then pose these questions to the candidates, and the campaigns can respond by video.
Gaffes that Keep on Giving
As they learn new technology, the campaigns have often stumbled their way around the Web in this election cycle. Some Republicans refused to join the YouTube debate earlier this year, throwing away valuable exposure, analysts say. There have been many embarrassing gaffes that live on in YouTube infamy.
In one YouTube video that was viewed hundreds of thousands of times, John Edwards fluffed his bounteous hair before a television interview as Julie Andrews trilled, "I feel pretty, oh so pretty ... "
Hillary Clinton was captured on video singing the national anthem famously off-key. Hours after Rudy Giuliani accepted a cell-phone call from his wife while speaking to the National Rifle Association, Mitt Romney's campaign posted videos of the former New York City mayor caught in similar straits - a half dozen times.
And no doubt, when a campaign implodes with a single, dramatic blunder - think Howard Dean and his infamous "I have a scream" speech in Iowa - that, too, will live on forever on YouTube.
Moreover, candidates' Second Life headquarters have been vandalized; MySpace pages have been hacked into; supporters' confidential information has been made vulnerable.
"You still have campaigns that are traditionally run by people who are pre-Internet people," Noble says. "This is probably the last election where you can say that."
But how much will Internet dominance mean at the polls? Sen. Barack Obama has led the Facebook race, with more than 153,000 supporters as of early October. Clinton lagged far behind in second place, with about 46,000 supporters. Obama's campaign also created a Facebook application, Obama for America, that allows supporters to receive automatic updates about the candidate on their home page.
In the next year, analysts expect to see even more user-generated videos, especially negative attacks on candidates. "The trend really is an explosion of video," says Mortman. "It turns out that's been the game changer."
Votes Aren't Everything
Meanwhile, Romney became the first candidate to buy 10,000 broadcast ads. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani spent more than any other candidate on radio spots.
For all the revolution in online politics, some analysts argue that the candidates are still failing to reach the vast majority of mainstream voters. About 15 percent of Americans were moved to donate money online, Noble says, after the tsunami in Asia - a far higher number than have contributed to U.S. presidential candidates online.
As analysts have often noted, few candidates' Web sites show visitors how to register to vote.
"The argument is that the Internet has never elected anybody," says Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and its group blog, techPresident.com. "But I would say the Internet has not elected a lot of people." A recent example: former Sen. George Allen of Virginia, whose use of a racially derogatory word raced across the Web and cost him re-election to the Senate.
But Mortman argues that the effectiveness of the Internet in the election is important in ways other than the number of votes it wins - or loses - candidates.
"It's great for our democracy to have so many people actively debating issues and watching debates and judging them," he said. "It's so much easier now and it's more productive to engage people in politics than ever before."