With more than five months remaining before the U.S. presidential election, the general campaign period is just dawning. Yet more Americans have already gone online to get political news this year than in all of 2004.
To some extent, that fact — reported in the latest Pew Internet & American Life Project survey — can be attributed to a longer-than-expected and sometimes heated campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. However, it is also indicative of the Internet’s growing role in politics.
Approximately 46 percent of Americans have used some form of online media to learn about the candidates or — as is typical for the Web — share their opinions about them with others, according to the report.
Political campaigns have lagged behind the consumer and business advertising sectors, noted Karen Jagoda, president of the E-Voter Institute.
“This Pew research reinforces the fact that likely voters are taking matters into their own hands,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “There is more content about candidates and issues online than in past elections [as well as] more tools to share video, blogs and links.”
Indeed, voters are increasingly using social media to supplement their typical news fare. This year, 35 percent of the 2,251 adults polled by Princeton Survey Research Associates visited online video sites, social networking sites and online donation sites. That number is triple the visitors to those venues during the 2004 cycle, according to the Pew report.
Democrats are benefiting the most from these trends, Pew notes. In part, this can be attributed to demographics: Younger people, who typically spend more time online, tend to favor the Democratic party. The Democrats have devoted more resources to Internet initiatives than the Republicans, who tend to invest in talk radio where they see a bigger payoff, explained David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, a political consultancy.
The Pew figures bear this out: Fifty-one percent of Democrats have watched online political videos this election season, compared with 42 percent of Republicans. Furthermore, 36 percent of Democrats have social networking sites, compared with 21 percent of the GOP.
Another finding from the report — namely that Sen. Barack Obama stands apart with respect to his use of the Internet — goes beyond such generalities. Seventy-four percent of Obama’s supporters have used the Web to find information about him or to donate money to his campaign, according to the survey. By contrast, only 57 percent of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s supporters took such actions.
It’s not as though the leverage the Internet can provide a candidate is some big secret. “In good times and bad times, after winning states and after losing states, Hillary Clinton kept one message very constant: ‘Go to hillaryclinton.com,'” Eric Kuhn, a new media consultant, told the E-Commerce Times.
Implementing a successful online political strategy, though, is more complex — and like much in politics, it is part art, part science and part serendipity.
“Success comes not only on their campaign Web sites, but how the campaigns have utilized other outlets on the web,” Kuhn said. “The Obama campaign has been on target in starting a conversation with the American people. That is what people are looking for from the candidates using the Internet: a way to engage and converse. The Obama campaign has utilized the Internet to get feedback on places liked LinkedIn. On LinkedIn, he asked small business owners a question and they gave advice in the thousands.”
Obama also has one of the top Twitter accounts, which he has used very successfully because of its organic nature, Kuhn added.
Obama has been exceptional in using the Internet to reach out to the college-age crowd, said John K. Hartman, a journalism professor at Central Michigan University.
“Clinton’s effort was respectable, but not as slick and up to date as Obama’s outreach,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
Obama’s popularity with this constituency is likely attributable to more than his savvy use of the Internet, though. “Here we have a candidate that has absolutely captivated many young adults,” Hartman observed. “I am 62 years old — and in all my years of teaching, I have never had so many students tell me I have to read a book,” he said, referring to Obama’s autobiography, The Audacity of Hope.
A Lagging Effort
The current trends are likely to accelerate as the general campaign goes into full swing and Obama’s online outreach efforts are compared to those of McCain, who is widely seen as lagging in this area.
“Obama has six to seven times more supporters on both Facebook and MySpace than McCain, and more YouTube viewers by even larger factors,” Christine B. Williams, a professor of Government at Bentley College, told the E-Commerce Times. “Obama gets about three times the blog buzz as McCain.”
McCain’s Internet activity has grown — but at a slow rate, she added.
Meanwhile, Obama continues to make strides. “Obama’s campaign is actively directing online media as part of its campaign strategy to a much greater extent than McCain. Obama has used the Internet and social networks, in particular, to drive attendance to campaign events and to stimulate voter turnout in particular caucus and primary states,” Williams said.
Of course, as Kuhn pointed out, the Internet can just as easily be a candidate’s worst nightmare as his or her best friend. “Just ask Obama about YouTube and his former Pastor Jeremiah Wright,” he quipped.
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