How'm I Doin'?
A Web presence is, for the first time, a critical component of a presidential campaign. Some of the candidates are enthusiastic about reaching voters through the Internet. Others, not so much. With 12 months to go, here's how we call it.
A common theme among political commentators has been that the 2008 election is being fought as much online as offline. Just four years after Howard Dean's campaign raised close to $50 million by embracing the grassroots efforts of supporters using blogs and Meetup.com, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube have become the new online battleground.
Months before the first presidential television ad aired, many of the candidates were busy updating their MySpace profiles, posting videos to YouTube and attempting to have online conversations with supporters. But their success at using these tools and making those connections varied widely. Some candidates were veritable innovators, creating online contests that incorporated their supporters' creativity into the campaign process. Others saw it fit to throw up an online video or two, perhaps missing a chance to reach millions of voters.
In the following analysis, we've graded each candidate's online presence according to quantitative and qualitative factors. Does a candidate have a MySpace profile? How many "friends" do they have? Have they gone above and beyond typical online behavior to reach out to supporters?
We don't yet know what the ultimate influence of the Web will be on the 2008 election, but we do know that, just as television changed the debates in 1960, presidential campaigns will never look the same again.
Biden staffer Erin Medlicott began blogging early on in the campaign, posting multiple times a day to report on campaign events, Biden's positions and media attention. The Web site is well-designed (despite - count 'em - six photos of the Delaware Senator on the front page alone), with prominent links to contribution pages, social networking sites and videos.
Biden has also produced two Web sites independent of his own, PlanforIraq.com and HeadtoHead08.com; the latter site compares the Democratic candidates' statements on the issues to Biden's own.
But Biden has been essentially absent from the video scene, producing no memorable video of his own, though he sits in the middle of the candidates in the number of YouTube views. Aside from the three Web sites, he hasn't used the Web for anything memorable that would attract online voters. Additionally, he sits near the bottom in the number of Facebook supporters and MySpace friends, and has conducted no blog outreach to progressive bloggers.
Clinton announced her candidacy in an online video, telling us, "I'm in, and I'm in to win" and promising an online "conversation." Since then she's participated in a handful of online forums on liberal-leaning blogs, conducted a contest to choose her campaign song, and even produced a popular video parody of the "Sopranos." She is second to Barack Obama in Facebook supporters, MySpace friends and YouTube views. Crystal Patterson blogs throughout the day on the Clinton site, which benefits from a clean and navigable design.
But instead of bringing us closer to the candidate, as many of these technologies are capable of doing, Clinton has used them to keep us at arm's length. She never really had that conversation with us, and even started up a video series called "Hillcasts" that abruptly ended after a few episodes. Despite technology that lets us connect to a candidate like never before, Clinton continues to treat us as passive viewers rather than active participants.
Chris Dodd has suffered from low poll numbers, hovering around 1 percent, for the entirety of the race. But he has one of the smallest yet most inventive Web teams working for a presidential campaign, and they've been busy implementing some of the most innovative technologies of the cycle.
They marked many technological firsts for this cycle: they were the first campaign to use Ustream, the live-video embedding tool, to let bloggers embed live video of the war room at the Democratic debates or Dodd meeting with supporters at a house party; they were one of the first campaigns to send a blogger on the road with the candidate; they have been quick to adopt new technologies like the "micro-blogging" tool Twitter; arguably, they focused on blog outreach more than any other campaign, reaching out to progressive Web sites, who reciprocated by posting Ustream video of Dodd events and even endorsing Dodd. He has also launched an effective Web site, Restore-Habeas.org, to support his civil liberties legislation.
John Edwards embraced technology early on in his candidacy, announcing his run via online video in a Webcast live from New Orleans. An early dust-up involved two bloggers who had written controversial blog posts in their pre-Edwards lives and who resigned after continued public pressure from conservatives. Not only did Edwards quickly begin using YouTube, Facebook and MySpace, he also grabbed onto seemingly every Web 2.0 site under the sun.
Earlier this year his campaign scored a major coup, snagging Joe Trippi, the 2004 campaign manager and tech guru for Howard Dean. Since then, Edwards' use of video in particular has picked up significantly, with the campaign e-mailng supporters links to videos of Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. Using the Web site Eventful, which lets people "demand" an appearance by bands, celebrities, and politicians, Edwards launched a contest this summer asking supporters to demand he visit their city. The winner: tiny Columbus, Ky., (pop: 229). This month Edwards visited the town.
Mike Gravel shares the bottom of the offline and online polls with Chris Dodd. Like Dodd, he's inspired little offline activism or shows of support, but unlike Dodd, his online presence has been severely limited. Yet one shining moment stands out in his campaign's mostly nonexistent online life.
Earlier this summer, Gravel produced two enigmatic videos titled "Water" and "Fire." The first featured Gravel staring into the camera for a good two or three minutes, before turning around, picking up a rock, throwing it into a pond and walking away. In the second, Gravel fixes a fire and we watch it burn. The two videos briefly made their way into the public's consciousness, inspiring observers to wonder about their meaning. Were they critiques of uptight and meaningless campaign videos? Zen-like meditations on nature? Simply products of the 77-year-old former Alaska Senator's imagination? Only he knows.
Starting out the campaign with a Web site that looked like it could have been built in 1997, rather than 2007 (with a giant peace sign to boot), either Kucinich didn't have the money to build out a nice design, or his Web staff wasn't overly concerned with looks. But what he lacked in aesthetics (he has since updated the design), he made up for in other ways. He was one of the first candidates to feature video on his home page, and has been one of the only candidates to conduct a text-messaging campaign. He was quick to take advantage of YouTube's Spotlight series, in which candidates had a chance to speak with regular people for a week, extending his interaction far beyond just one week. But he is also consistently in fourth place in the number of Facebook supporters, MySpace friends and YouTube views, and hasn't had the kind of online groundswell that other candidates have enjoyed, seemingly stuck in the bottom tier of the Democratic field.
Barack Obama has raised more money, from more people, than any other Republican or Democratic candidate for the upcoming primary. In many ways, he's been expert at attracting traffic to his Web site, owning a larger share of total candidate Web traffic than any other politician. In addition, Obama has dominated all of the candidates in the number of Facebook supporters, MySpace friends and YouTube views. But his campaign has also been reluctant to reach out to liberal and Democratic bloggers, frustrating members of the "netroots" (online progressives).
In one ugly incident, the campaign tried to buy an unofficial MySpace profile with more than 160,000 friends created by an energetic fan, but when negotiations went sour the campaign had the profile shut down, and began the slow work of building a new profile from scratch. Nevertheless, perhaps due to his popularity with younger voters, Obama's online numbers are unparalleled, and his campaign has produced some compelling video focusing on Obama's supporters rather the candidate, creating a fabric of America that does much to give the campaign a patriotic, all-American look, even if it does little to shine a light on the candidate himself.
Respected as an experienced diplomat and ex-governor, Bill Richardson has struggled to take his candidacy beyond his middle-tier status. He launched TV ads before most of his Democratic opponents, and they were a hit online as well.
A "Job Interview" series displayed both Richardson's deep experience and sense of humor, and he launched a separate Web site, getourtroops out.com, that lays out the differences between his and the other Democrats' Iraq strategies. The site features one of the most articulate, biting attack videos of the cycle, proving that Richardson's strong suit continues to be well-produced video.
But Richardson has been lax about reaching out to bloggers and online activists, and aside from his videos, which can and often do double as television spots, he hasn't used the medium to have a convincing conversation with his supporters and those interested in his campaign.
Although he tops most of the Republican candidates in nationwide polls, Giuliani has been slow to discover the Internet. He created a MySpace page early on, but locked it so that only his "friends" could see it, and he didn't accept new friend invitations. The result was predictable: a dearth of friends. Until recently he hadn't produced any cutting-edge or exciting video, instead populating his YouTube channel with clips from television appearances and well-produced campaign ads.
But his Web staff seems to have been getting through to him. He recently (finally!) created a Facebook profile and even has a Facebook application. A new video series called "Running with Rudy" features staffer Dan Meyers reporting on Rudy's movements in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Giuliani himself has held conference calls with conservative bloggers.
However, don't expect Giuliani to produce informal, homespun videos anytime soon; he likes to keep things top-down and to stay on message at all times, two things at odds with the culture of the Internet.
Mike Huckabee, the likable, bass-playing ex-Governor of Arkansas, has been showing signs of hopping into the first tier of Republican candidates. His campaign blogger, Vincent Harris, has been following him around the country and reporting on the action, and has helped create a solid community of bloggers around the candidate. Huckabee has taken advantage of his comfort in front of the camera and produced several compelling, earthy videos in which he speaks directly to his supporters.
But as in the offline world, Huckabee has struggled to develop a decent following on Facebook, YouTube or MySpace. Despite his folksy appeal and Christian background (he's a Baptist minister), he's found it hard to hold on to the momentum brought on by his surprise second-place finish in an Ames, Iowa, straw poll this summer.
Duncan Hunter has maintained a fairly unimpressive Web presence, with a basic Web site, a YouTube channel with a fair amount of views, and neglected Facebook and MySpace profiles. Hunter's big issue is immigration (he's a proponent of building a fence on the Mexican border), and most of his videos address it in some way.
But like Giuliani, he doesn't seem to understand the strength of online video, its ability to help candidates and
supporters interact with each other, and the need for candidates to show voters a more informal and sincere side. Instead, his YouTube channel is chock full of TV news bits and clips from interviews.
John McCain's web operation started out with bang. He had a big, full-fledged Web site before many of his opponents did; his front page featured slickly-produced video about his biography and ideals; and he even developed his own social networking space, MyMcCain.com (it was harshly criticized for not working properly). McCain has also participated in conference calls with conservative bloggers and he's popular on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
Video is a tricky medium for McCain. Given his reputation as a straight talker, it sometimes serves him well, giving him a chance to show off his sense of humor and down-to-earth manner. Also, his status as a Vietnam war veteran and former POW provides a rich story which has been explored in well-made campaign-produced documentaries.
But online video is also good at exposing other kinds of realities, like what politicians can say in the heat of the moment, or when jokes bomb and veer toward the offensive. One early example was when McCain was videotaped singing the words, "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," which didn't sit well with a populace nervous about rising tensions with Iran. Predictably, the video became a favorite on YouTube. In another less than glorious moment, he called a teenager a "big jerk" for insinuating that McCain was too old to be president.
Ron Paul is the candidate whose Web presence most resembles Howard Dean's in 2004. He has a vast army of supporters, most of whom have self-organized in support of the libertarian Republican. His anti-war stance has galvanized a neglected conservative demographic disillusioned with Republican support for the Iraq war, and his message of small government has resonated online, where users tend to be more libertarian-minded than average.
Paul is the top Republican on Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, and even dominates the Election 2008 section of the news aggregation site Digg.com. In the third quarter, Paul raised more than $5 million, mostly online, proving that online enthusiasm sometimes can translate into offline action (read: money).
Despite all this, it's unclear how much of a role Paul himself is playing in his online success. He is filling a void in the Republican party that enthusiastic supporters are all too happy to take up, and in the absence of mainstream media attention they've turned to the Internet, which gives them the chance not only to promote their candidate, but organize among themselves.
This summer Mitt Romney announced that he wouldn't participate in a CNN/YouTube debate, in which the questions arrived via Web video, because he didn't want to have to answer to a snowman (a snowman named Billiam asked the Democratic candidates a question about global warming in an earlier debate). His dismissal betrayed a hint of fear, giving the impression that he was afraid of the Web and its more chaotic, uncontrollable elements. Indeed, Romney has been hit by several online videos mashing up his statements from the past that directly contradict his positions as a Republican presidential candidate.
But despite his reluctance to engage with the culture of the Web, Romney's staff have been avid users of Web tools. His five sons write a campaign blog called "Five Brothers" and his wife, Ann, just started her own blog as well; he launched the MittTV section of his site early on in his campaign; and, most famously, his campaign just wrapped up a contest in which supporters created their own video in support of the campaign using the online video editing site Jumpcut. The most popular video was chosen for a television ad spot.
But even this contest came back to bite him. Writers for Slate.com produced two anti-Romney ads using the tool, both of which were funnier and more popular than anything created by his supporters.
On Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, Tom Tancredo, the other conservative anti-immigration candidate, has had some of the lowest numbers of any candidate.
He has largely failed to catch on with online voters, and even his turn in YouTube's Spotlight series went awry.
Instead of following convention and asking YouTubers what issues they found important, Tancredo lectured about his plan to curb illegal immigration and essentially asked viewers if they agreed.
This was not exactly the kind of back-and-forth discussion the Internet helps make possible.
Even before he officially became a candidate for president, Fred Thompson, a TV actor and former Senator, had a significant presence online, appearing more comfortable than most candidates with the medium. As an online commentator for ABC radio, Thompson was essentially blogging about conservative politics before he ran, and he announced his candidacy in an online video on his fully-formed Web site. Like Giuliani and McCain, he has held conference calls with bloggers, and his Web team is comprised of some of the most respected figures in the conservative Web.
But Thompson's reliance on the Web has also been seen as a possible weakness; his statements about how important the Web is in getting the message out was interpreted in some circles as a clue that he didn't have enough "fire in the belly" to run an on-the-ground campaign. And while Thompson may be comfortable in front of a camera, he's so far been unable to use his skills as an actor to convince a skeptical public; observers in Iowa report that Thompson has had a hard time engaging audiences.