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Internet Proving Powerful Force in Presidential Race

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Tightening polls have made Tuesday’s super-duper primary contest too close to call. But there is one place where Sen. Barack Obama has a clear lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival: the Web.

Most political analysts agree that Obama has far outmaneuvered Clinton online, raising money, generating buzz, and building his support, especially among young voters. “He is dominating the Internet,” said Alan Rosenblatt, an online advocacy expert at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

To be sure, the candidates still do a lot of campaigning the old-fashioned way — crisscrossing the country for big rallies, sending high-powered surrogates on the trail and spending millions in television advertising. But the frenzied pace of this year’s primary schedule – seen most dramatically in the push to Tuesday, when 22 states hold primaries – has left them with only days to make their case to millions.

Gregory Rodriguez, a Los Angeles Times political columnist and the author of “Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America,” said the campaign arrived suddenly in California, where 370 pledged delegates are at stake on Tuesday. “Our entire view of the candidates," said Rodriguez, "comes from watching how they campaigned in early states like Iowa and South Carolina.”

Faced with a similar scenario across the country, the campaigns are relying on the Web like never before, to spread their message, organize volunteers and more. You can even get a script and a list of phone numbers and start making calls to get out the vote.

For Obama, the recent Internet results have been remarkable. A low-key, low-budget response to President George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address has been seen by more than 980,000 people in just one week. A music video directed by Jesse Dylan and featuring a variety of actors, musicians and other celebrities — and made independently of the campaign — that reprises Obama’s “Yes We Can” refrain from his New Hampshire concession speech was quickly seen by more than 300,000 since its debut Saturday.

Obama’s South Carolina victory speech also shot to the top of the charts. As Joshua Levy, associate editor of techPresident.com, which covers the way candidates use technology, put it, the competition was tough: “Britney was topless, but more people wanted to watch Barack Obama talk about politics.”

Clinton is trying to step up her new-media game.

A 90-minute town hall meeting with her will be broadcast live Monday night on Hallmark Channel and streamed over her campaign Web site. Questions can be submitted through HillaryClinton.com and YouTube, or by text message.

Clinton has also had her own YouTube moments. Her teary talk the day before the New Hampshire primary, which many political analysts now say was key to rallying more women to her banner, was seen by more than 600,000.

According to TubeMogul, an online video analysis group, Obama has been seen a total of 14.8 million times on YouTube since the campaign began. Clinton’s total is 5.6 million. Such online experiences don’t substitute for seeing the candidate in person, but in this, the first presidential election of the YouTube era, these viral videos are changing the American public’s experience of politics.

Fund-raising has been another area of success. The $32 million that the Obama campaign raised last month included $28 million that came through the Internet, according to the Washington Post. Clinton has not yet released her January fund-raising totals.

The presidential campaigns also have a strong presence on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, where supporters reach out to their own friends and family — an especially effective means of persuasion.

“It’s one thing if you get an email from a candidate,” said Macon Phillips of Blue State Digital, an Internet consulting firm that provides technical support for the Obama campaign. “It’s a whole other thing if you get one from your college classmate.”

Obama’s campaign has also scored well with its own social networking site, my.BarackObama, which gives supporters a space to set up personal fund-raising pages, write blog posts and share messages with friends and other supporters. The site, an offshoot of the campaign’s main Web site, has been up and running for nearly a year, providing a ready supply of volunteers and activists as the campaign has moved into new states. “The intentional community-building aspect of this campaign is really just bearing fruit at this time,” Phillips said.

Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, a progressive think tank, agreed that Obama’s national Internet-based community would be especially helpful in grappling with the competing demands of Tuesday’s near-national primary.

“He is running a campaign that no one has ever seen before,” Rosenberg said. “These supporters are not only contributing to his campaign at unprecedented levels. They are an unprecedented tool to reach tens of millions of voters.”


The Internet has proved a powerful force in U.S. politics since 2000, when Sen. John McCain used it effectively during the Republican primary. Four years later, it was the campaign of Howard Dean, a Democrat, that demonstrated the Internet’s potential as a tool for fund-raising and person-to-person marketing. But neither of these candidates became their party’s nominee.

Clay Shirky, who teaches at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, said this year’s presidential campaigns have largely shied away from a third element that Dean embraced: encouraging direct citizen involvement in shaping the campaign’s policies.

That decision makes sense, said Shirky, who is the author of the coming book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” “The risk with social media," Shirky said, "is that the users expect to influence the campaign. If you do it right, you create this exhortational environment, where people are mainly satisfied with voting for the guy, without feeling left out because they are not setting policy.”

While controlling the message of his campaign, Shirky said, Obama has allowed his supporters to shape the medium, like this weekend’s music video. By contrast, he said, “Hillary wants to control the message and the medium.”

Levy agreed. “Hillary Clinton has just not understood that basic idea of letting go of your message a little bit." he said, "and letting your supporters go with it.”

The Clinton campaign seemed to soften its demand for control after her loss to Obama in Iowa. Clinton began to take questions from the crowd in New Hampshire, and her televised town hall meeting tonight will mark another step in that direction.

Rosenblatt, who runs online advocacy strategies at the Center for American Progress, said that early on, Clinton’s campaign decided its base was baby boomers. “They made an assumption – perhaps a wrong assumption — that they were not into social networks,” Rosenblatt said.

By contrast, Rosenblatt said, “Obama has a staff of people who were steeped in social networking strategies before they came to the Obama campaign.” They include Joe Rospars, a veteran of the Dean campaign, who developed a social-networking tool for the Democratic National Committee, and Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, and they made social-networking a top priority.

In contrast, the Clinton’s camp’s early focus was trying to manage her relations with the blogosphere.

Her top Internet strategist, Peter Daou, was an experienced blogger, comfortable and well-connected in the netroots. But the past year has shown that shaping the way a candidate is covered online is not as effective an organizing tool as enabling supporters to use their own networks to spread campaign messages and drum up support.

Rosenblatt complained that none of the campaigns are using the Internet as an advertising tool the way they should. But, he said, they are using online tools to connect people at offline events.

A good gauge of this is the number of people who have used Meetup.com to form offline groups to support a candidate. Obama again outpaces Clinton in this arena by about 3-to-1. But the leader by far is Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who has been a strong critic of the war in Iraq. More than 105,000 people have joined real-world groups to support his campaign.

Paul has been closer to Dean in encouraging his supporters to help shape his message, and he has regularly raised more money online than all the other GOP contenders. At the same time, his net-savvy backers have seized the Internet as their most powerful tool to spread his anti-war message.

Phillips, from Blue State Digital, said the Internet has reshaped campaigns, making them “a virtual organization of hundreds of thousand of people who are all contributing one way or another.”

But he and others interviewed agree that it cannot replace traditional door-to-door politics.

“The Internet doesn’t elect people,” Rosenblatt said. “But it enhances everything else that you do.”

The Obama camp has seen that clearly since the "Yes We Can" video emerged on Saturday. By Monday morning, the clip, which underscores a central theme of the campaign, had been viewed by more than 1 million people. MoveOn.org, the progressive online activist group that endorsed Obama last week, sent it to its members, asking them to forward the video friends and family with a note about why they were supporting him. It’s the kind of viral support that has helped put Obama within striking distance.

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