Politics & Policy

Virtual Election

What is YouTubeMySpaceFaceBookMashUp worth in a campaign?

By the time the first votes that actually count are cast next year — or perhaps this year — the candidates will have announced over the Internet, attended YouTube debates, appeared at a MySpace forum, created their Facebook pages, participated in the Slate/Yahoo Candidate MashUp, and perhaps even competed for the affection of ObamaGirl. Already this cycle has set a record for most nouns and modifiers pushed together and capitalized into buzzword form.

This is the most technologically intensive election cycle in American history, and yet so far it seems that the gadgets, widgets, and new tech are ultimately modest upgrades of tried and true campaign tools.

The Democrats’ YouTube debate was essentially just a town hall-forum, a format whose flaws were apparent as early as when Pony-Tail Guy asked the candidates in 1992,

The focus of my work is domestic mediation, is meeting the needs of the children that I work with by way of their parents and not the wants of their parents, and I ask the three of you, how can we as, symbolically, the children of the future president expect the two of you, the three of you to meet our needs?

Town-hall forums can be fascinating or dreadfully dull, largely depending upon the quality of the questions. Unfortunately, when the cameras and lights are on the Average Joe during his moment in the spotlight, he often succumbs to a paralyzing “um, uh, well, you know, um, you see, I’ve got a question,” or they’re suddenly seized by the desire to harangue the candidates.

YouTube did two things — it opened up the question submission process to everyone with access to a video camera and the web capacity to submit a question, and it allowed the questioners to ask at their leisure, to avoid the sudden freezing up. Ultimately, for the candidates, the task is the same — answer the question in a way that makes them look presidential, even if it’s coming from stop-motion-animation snowman.

The MySpace Forum that debuted last week is a similar upgrade, in that it allows anyone at home to react by voting online during the candidate’s answer. In theory, a candidate would take a question, answer, see the instant reaction to the answer; if the reaction is negative, the candidate tries again to win over the skeptics.

John Edwards participated in the first of these forums, but on the whole the model has yet to be really tested. The crowd at the University of New Hampshire was a friendly one — many students in the audience wore anti-Iraq war stickers. There was a question from a student involved in the ONE Campaign, and another from a student involved in an effort to fight Sudanese genocide. It seems likely that the MySpace users watching over the Internet weren’t terribly different demographically than the ethnically diverse young people in the UNH Field House — and that answers that resonated with the audience in front of Edwards, resonated with the audience in cyberspace.

Edwards’s success comes from speaking to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of audiences of every type during his career, and from knowing how to handle a question from a forlorn arts student about why athletic programs get more money than arts programs. The task for the candidate is the same as before — know your audience and know how to make your case in a way that’s persuasive to them. A candidate who finds that he is losing the crowd in front of him shouldn’t be surprised if a similar effect occurs with the online crowd.

The last campaign that managed to turn the use of technology into dramatic, albeit short-lived, electoral traction was Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004. Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager, laid out how desperation and lack of cash forced the Dean campaign to be more creative, and take more risks in their use of the Internet in his campaign memoir The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

In particular, the Dean campaign was forced by its inability to compete in traditional expensive media to look at new, little-known ideas like Meetups (another one of those new buzzwords created by mushing two words together), organized by a web site that connected people with similar interests and gave them a time and place to get together.

After we put Meetup on the on the web site, I checked back, and suddenly there were 2,700 people who wanted to meet up for Dean… The second-highest candidate, Kerry, had only gone up to 330 names. This was more than just a statistical quirk. Something was going on out there. About that time, the visionary developers of Meetup.com contacted me and we negotiated a fee of $2,500- not a bad initial investment for a site that would eventually boast 190,000 Dean members. Later, as the other campaigns caught on to the phenomenon, they would call the Meetup guys and ask for what had come to be known as the “Trippi Special.” The other campaigns were about six months too late. No one was ever going to get that deal again. On the Internet, being the first mover can be everything.

Today there are 20 presidential candidates with Meetup groups, including Draft Al Gore, Draft Mark Warner, Draft Russ Feingold, Ralph Nader, Wesley Clark, and several names unheard of to even the most diehard politics junkie.

The time it takes for an idea to go from a crazy experiment by one campaign, to standard issue, is shrinking rapidly.

Last week, public-affairs firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and The Politico hosted a discussion of the tools, best practices, and strategies the campaigns are using in the primary season. When the panelists were asked which campaign was doing the best job on the Internet, there was some common praise for the teams of Obama, Giuliani, and Romney, but there didn’t seem to be any overwhelming consensus, nor did it seem that a single campaign stood head and shoulders above the rest.

Innovations have a limited and closing window to make a splash and benefit a particular campaign, before every rival does the same and nullifies the advantage.

“You’re on all the other campaign sites, every day,” said Eric Carbone, the coordinator of Joe Biden’s online efforts, and veteran of similar role for Wesley Clark in 2003-2004, adding that then when he was asked why so many campaign sites look alike, he responded, “campaign websites need to do 15 million things in about 15 seconds. People realize what works, and they steal from each other.”

When the history of the campaign of 2008 is written, perhaps one odd little innovation will seem larger than it did at the time: the decision by Barack Obama’s campaign to count every purchase of an Obama08 hat, button, and other piece of campaign paraphernalia as a campaign contribution. When Obama’s campaign announced that about $11 million of the $33 million raised in the second quarter consisted of donations of less than $200, it was widely seen as a sign that he was riding a tsunami-like wave of support from the grassroots. His support was impressive, but his numbers were skewed because only he was adding cap-purchasers to his donor total. Whether you bought the cap because you liked Obama, or it was a gift for someone else, or whether you simply collect campaign memorabilia, you became a registered donor, like it or not.

(When I asked several Republican campaigns what their small-donor numbers would look like if they counted every cap, button, and other knickknack sold at events and through the web site as a campaign contribution, none of them could give a firm number. All predicted it would boost the number of small donors significantly.)

In the end, most of these ideas amount to new ways for candidates to reach voters. But even the greatest technology in the world can’t hide what a candidate is made of; if you’re prone to outbursts, sooner or later you’ll end up screaming a list of states into a live microphone. The gadgetry doesn’t make the candidate; it just helps reveal him (or her).

Winning the presidency in 2008 will take precisely what has been needed in previous cycles — a strong candidate, reassuring experience, an inspiring vision, and an ability to earn the trust of Americans.

–Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.

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