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  1. #1
    Senior Member Dixie's Avatar
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    Texas - Occupied State - The Front Line

    Politicians seek Internet edge

    Politicians seek Internet edge
    Future of Web exciting, but uncertain
    By Jason Spencer
    Published: Sunday, October 7, 2007 ARTICLE OPTIONS

    Most presidential candidates and their staffs love to talk about all the wonderful things they're able to do online. But despite all the hype that the Internet is revolutionizing political campaigns, the biggest contribution 2008 likely will make is that it will act as a testing ground for what tactics will be used in future elections.

    Even in South Carolina, which has an extremely fertile political Web presence, a giant question mark looms as to what impact the Internet could have on the upcoming presidential primary and the subsequent statewide races. And part of that question comes from the rise of the blogosphere, the uncontrollable corner of the Web world.

    "We still have a long way to go before Internet politics is sort of driving results," said Michael Cornfield, adjunct professor in political management at George Washington University. "It frames the discussion - in non-electoral politics as well - but it's not really driving election results yet."

    Web 2.0 refers to the onslaught of video sharing and social networking sites that now permeate the online world.

    Millions of people go online looking for political information, or to become political activists.

    You might not be Democrat Barack Obama's friend, but you can be his MySpace friend.

    You might not know anyone else on your street who supports Republican Ron Paul, but you can find a legion of like-minded folks online.

    You might not be able to ride on Republican John McCain's "No Surrender" bus, but you can watch video from inside it.

    Remember when?

    Cornfield believes the presidential campaigns are only tapping into about 10 percent of the Web's potential - but says that even incremental progress is better than no progress.

    He likes to frame the discussion in how the 2008 race will be remembered.

    Cornfield's assessment:

    ulIf McCain wins, 2008 will be the year of search engine optimization - for a while, thanks to Google AdWords, whenever you searched for "Iraq," a McCain ad was listed on the side of the screen.

    ulIf Democrat John Edwards wins, that would prove the viability of launching multiple mini-campaigns based on the top issue of the day - or week. This was recently exemplified by Edwards' attack on privatizing military and security contractors, which was extensively detailed on his Web site.

    ulIf Obama wins, then this will be the year of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, the rise of online merchandising and the accumulation of small donations. Obama twice now has held "Dinner with Barack" contests where anyone who donated at least $5 was eligible to win a meal with the candidate and three other supporters.

    ulPaul's Internet popularity hasn't necessarily translated to high scores in conventional polls: "If Ron Paul wins, we're going to have to declare the Internet the center of the universe," Cornfield said. "It'll be a Copernican revolution." But Paul's surprising third-quarter fundraising results have given him some added credibility in the eyes of the mainstream media.

    ulRepublican Mitt Romney is relying hard on micro-targeting and has hired the so-called "architect" of Bush's re-election: Alex Gage. Gage's strategy is to gather tons of data on everyone in a potential voting base, and then have candidates tailor their message to that group. In other words, if immigration was a top issue in Spartanburg ZIP codes, but health care was a top issue around Concord, N.H., then Romney would more than likely speak more about immigration here and health care there.

    ulDemocrat Hillary Clinton has shown her strength in terms of being savvy with Web video. Her campaign's Web video parody of "The Sopranos" was an instant success, for instance. Clinton also held a choose-my-campaign-theme-song contest online.

    ulRepublican Fred Thompson is still a bit of a question mark, as he was blogging earlier this year, but seems to have lost interest in his keyboard lately.

    Eventually, candidates will have to become a channel of ongoing messages and communication, said Phil Noble, a Greenville native now living in Charleston. Noble is the founder of, director of the South Carolina New Democrats, and a member of Obama's South Carolina Steering Committee.

    "I don't know why they don't do more," Noble said. "Politicians are very, very conservative animals. Their standard procedure is, 'What worked last time? Let's do that again.' "

    Into the real world

    The importance of the Web revolves around creating spaces where supporters can meet and talk to one another and trade ideas, Noble said.

    The danger for candidates is that the more content online activists generate, the less control any campaign has over those messages.

    "Our political system, both state and nationally, is broken, in the sense it has become corrupt," he said.

    "The average citizen doesn't see how they can participate or make a difference. And the Internet gives them a way to do that in a new way. It used to be you had to go down to the party office and lick envelopes.

    But now they can organize online. They can donate. There are lots of new ways they can do the old things - and most importantly, they can do it when and how they want to. They can blog at 3 a.m. while they're naked at home."

    But the anonymity of some blog's rants and raves can drive people away from the political process, said Republican strategist Chip Felkel of Greenville.

    "A lot of stuff that gets started there doesn't go anywhere else, because the people who are reading it are political junkies. It's not Joe Six-Pack. You figure 90 percent of stuff discussed on the Internet never makes it beyond that venue, where it's inside baseball," said Felkel, who co-owns, a nonpartisan blog where users supply most of the content.

    And sometimes, trying to be anonymous can backfire.

    Wesley Donehue, who works for Romney's South Carolina consultants, posted an attack site called the first day Thompson visited South Carolina, lambasting the former Tennessee senator as "Pimp Fred," "McCain Fred" and "Playboy Fred." After a Washington Post reporter traced the site to Donehue, the site was taken down. And the campaign immediately distanced itself from the site, saying it had no knowledge of it and did not condone it. Donehue, who does not work directly for the Romney campaign, could not be reached for comment.

    But that's when the virtual world went physical: Something online, even though it may be a blip on the long-term political radar screen, made headlines and was on television. Adam Fogle, who runs, calls it "the trickle-up effect."

    And that's one way online campaigning can be most effective, Felkel said.

    "Chris Matthews called Warren Tomkins by name on 'Hardball,'" he said. "It's not quite the fame and fortune they were looking for, but in some ways they get a win off that thing. They still accomplished what they were trying to do."

    The tsunami effect

    Social networking, too, is in something of a testing phase. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn allow users to accumulate friends and organize grassroots events.

    Kevin Griffis, an Obama spokesman, took issue with the idea that campaigns are afraid to relinquish control over online real estate.

    "While the campaign may post a topic, our supporters can redirect the discussion to talk about anything they want to talk about, and they tell the campaign what they like and what they don't like, and we learn from it. We sometimes even find out about regional issues that need to be addressed nationally because our supporters are bringing it up online," Griffis wrote in an e-mail.

    "Under the old philosophy of campaigning - top down - voters were treated like little more than consumers who had a message shoved at them. The technology the Obama campaign is using online has allowed us to flip that on its head."

    The site tracks the number of MySpace friends, Facebook supporters and YouTube views for each Democratic and Republican candidate. Obama, a Democrat, and Paul, a Republican, lead in each of the three respective categories by substantial margins.

    While the Internet is increasingly important with activists, Cornfield said, "the world still revolves around television and door knocking."

    In 100 years, the 2008 election and the two preceding it will be akin to the technological advance of moving from sharpened axes to bronzed arrowheads in antiquity.

    The Net impact seems big now, but will be a footnote in history.

    Noble said only a relatively small percentage of people donated money online in 2004, for instance.

    A few months later, a tsunami hit Southeast Asia, and online donations for relief increased 1,000 percent, he said.

    When that kind of power is realized in political campaigns, Web 2.0 will begin to be a real tool.

    "You can call, donate, organize friends, send petitions, gather people for house parties. … Once people figure out if you're mad at what they're doing, and this is where you go to do something, that's when politics explodes," Noble said. "It will be messy, but it's going to be a good thing."

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