By Oliver M. Style
When Senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president of the United States last Saturday, he exploited a vital tool that fellow Illinoisan Abraham Lincoln could not have dreamed of using over a century earlier. In addition to the cheering crowds attending Obama’s speech in Springfield, Illinois, thousands were able to watch a video feed of the first-term senator’s announcement on his website, BarackObama.com.
“Presidential candidates are taking advantage of the fact that more and more people are using the Internet to find their political campaign information,” said Matt Tatham, a spokesperson for Hitwise, which monitors website traffic and provides meas-urement data reports for online businesses.
Sen. Obama is not the only politician trying to appeal to an increasingly technologically savvy electorate; using the Internet to snag votes is quickly becoming the modus operandi for anyone vying for the nation’s highest office.
According to an analysis conducted by Hitwise following the launch of Senator Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) presidential campaign on Jan. 20—announced via Web video rather than on TV—Internet users flocked to the candidate’s official web page to make donations and to access information. The company’s demographic data report also noted that young people comprised a substantial amount of the net traffic to Sen. Clinton’s site.
“Senator Clinton’s website is showing a very strong representation with 18 to 24 year-olds, which could be good news for her campaign, as the 2008 election will almost certainly be strongly influenced by the web, and YouTube in particular,” the report stated.
Paul Frymer, professor of American politics at UC Santa Cruz, acknowledged that the increased online presence of ’08 presidential candidates marks a tangible shift in the way politicians are trying to connect with today’s—and even tomorrow’s—voter-aged youth.
“Every four years we come up with a new way to reach out to the youth vote,” Frymer said. “[Bill] Clinton went on MTV and answered a question about boxers or briefs, P. Diddy did his â€˜Vote or Die’ campaign in 2004, and now [candidates] are using Internet sites more. It makes perfect sense since more people are on the Internet.”
But, regardless of the Facebook and MySpace links now prevalently displayed on every campaign website, Frymer believes that candidates will still have a hard time luring young voters to the ballot box on election day.
“I think a long time ago, Richard Nixon sang songs on TV with Sammy Davis, Jr. to show how hip he was,” Frymer said. “But it doesn’t seem to matter much to the youth vote that seems to vote at the same disaffected rates it always does, whether appealed to or not.”
However, there appears to be an incentive for ’08 candidates, who are rapidly harnessing the power of web video, personal blogs and networking websites, to turn to the Internet to communicate with the public.
A recent survey administered by the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan “fact tank” based in Washington D.C., found that more than 60 million people went online to learn about candidates and elections in 2006. Out of the 2,562 who were questioned, 15 percent named the Internet as their primary source of political information—up from 7 percent in 2002.
The Pew study also determined that the Internet seemed to be the principle news source for young people in particular. Thirty-five percent of people under the age of 36 with broadband access at home said the Internet was their primary source of political information.
“One of the lessons learned from recent campaigns is that the candidate who makes smart use of the Internet in 2008 will have a decided edge,” said Peter Daou, Internet director for the Hillary Clinton for President Exploratory Committee. “Through an innovative web campaign, [Sen. Clinton] will be able to have conversations with thousands of Americans each day.”
Unsurprisingly, the first presidential debate on Apr. 26, to be hosted at South Carolina State University, will be streamed live on MSNBC.com.