Effects of the Internet on the 2008 Presidential Campaign

When I was looking at John Edwards’s campaign website, I was surprises to see links on the front page to his account on popular social networks such as Facebook and MySpace as well as websites that I have never even heard before, like vSocial.com. Such links were not as predominately featured on Hillary Clinton’s or Rudy Giuliani’s websites, but were on the front page of Barak Obama’s website. With a creative slant, John McCain’s website proposed users to create an account on McCainSpace, a mySpace-type network for McCain supporters. In addition, McCain posted his own March Madness bracket, which users can compete against to win free “McCain-2008” shirts. This shows just shows a glimpse of the Internet-ization of the 2008 Presidential campaign (WSJ has a interesting article on the subject). Each of the candidates is relying more on the Internet to attract voters, trying slightly different Internet approaches than the others, but overall sticking to the same devices. The question is whether such campaign tactics will revolutionize, or at least change, the campaign process, perphaps like personally addressed mass mail did back in the early ‘80s.

Internet-ization could potentially lead voters to be more informed and to choose candidates primarily based on candidates’ views on issues. In previous election, voters had to predominately rely upon the television for information about the candidates’ views on issues. However, the media more often covers scandals, poll ratings, and campaign day-to-day activities than actual issues. The candidates had websites, but they were substantially less developed compared to the much better designed and maintained websites candidates have today. Voters could easily access such websites, or even better, stumble upon them from Facebook or mySpace, read about the candidate’s views, and formulate their opinions of the candidates based on what issues they support. For this to actually happen, candidates need to have unique, clearly stated views. In real life, though, candidates prefer to have very bland stances on issues that attract the most voters by alienating the minimum number of voters. For example, Giuliani is generally viewed as the most liberal Republican candidate when it comes to social issues, like gay marriage. On his website, it is stated:
“Rudy Giuliani believes marriage is between a man and a woman. He does not - and has never - supported gay marriage. But he believes in equal rights under law for all Americans. That's why he supports domestic partnerships that provide stability for committed partners in important legal and personal matters, while preserving the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”
On the other hand, McCain is considered a socially conservative candidate. On his website, its written, “John McCain believes that marriage should be defined as a union between one man and one woman. He believes that the courts should respect the right of the people to decide this question.” Just from reading those short sections, one couldn’t choose between the two based on their views on gay marriage. Both say that they oppose gay marriage and it’s not clear whether McCain supports a “legal partnership” for gay couples. Perhaps there is hope that the ever-growing un-official sources, such as political blogs or other politics related websites, will reveal more detail pictures of the candidates’ stances on issues. However, it’s debatable how popular are these sources. After all, will the non-polarized, average Americans bother google-ing for more information on Presidential candidates’ political views or will they just trust CNN?

The second and probably main goal of Facebook-like campaign tactics is to attract more young voters. After all, most of the users of the social networks are young; statistically speaking, many of them don’t usually vote, but potentially could if they started caring about the particular candidates. However, the problem wilh Facebook-like tactics is that most people who are aware of the candidates’ social network profiles are already politically active. Unless one randomly searches for a candidate on Facebook or MySpace, he can only find out about a candidate’s social network profiles either through a candidate’s campaign websites or the news. If he either access campaign website or reads the news and bother to look up a candidate’s profiles, he is politically involved and would likely to vote anyway. Proving this assertion, the exposure of campaign related profiles is very small compared to the total population. As an example, Barack Obama leads all the Presidential candidates with eighty-three thousand MySpace friends, a number way short of the millions of young voters in the U.S. Thus, campaign’s heavy reliance on the Internet will have negligible effect on getting young people to vote. The much talked about Internet-ization is no more than an ineffective fad.

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