Who's the Most Web Savvy '08 Candidate?

ByJennifer Parker

March 29, 2007 — -- If you ever wondered which 2008 presidential candidate had the most Internet-savvy campaign, you need only look at a newWeb site that monitors the campaigns' every move on the Internet.

"We're tracking whether the candidates are connecting in the new digital media universe," said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of techpresident.com, a new nonpartisan "group blog" that tracks the effect the presidential candidates are having online.

"We like to show how candidates are, and are not, using technology," Rasiej said, arguing that most of the '08 campaigns were falling flat online.

The new Web site has a link for users to see which candidate has the fastest-growing group of "friends" on MySpace, a popular social networking site.

So far, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is leading his '08 Democratic rivals, with more than 85,000 friends linked to his MySpace page. That's almost three times as many as New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has more than 32,000 friends. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has a little more than 16,000.

"The Barack campaign is basically getting really good traction on MySpace and Facebook because there's a lot of interest in Barack," Rasiej told ABC News. "This isn't a poll, but it's an indicator of enthusiasm."

The Obama campaign says it has been focusing on engaging voters online and giving supporters tools to "take organizing into their own hands."

"While the online energy surrounding his candidacy is clear, our real focus online is driving supporters to our Web site so that they can participate in the process by hosting house parties, writing their own campaign blogs and starting grass-roots groups in their communities," said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the Obama campaign.

However, the enthusiasm has seemed to wane online when it comes to the Republican candidates. The GOP candidates trail vastly behind the Democrats in terms of MySpace friends.

The top GOP friend-winner is long-shot '08 contender Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with almost 4,700 MySpace friends. Better-known Republican candidates like former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani each have fewer than 3,500 friends.

The Web site also features bloggers who skewer the candidates' digital media sites.

"Nobody Runs for President With a Site This Bad" reads a headline on a recent blog post about the Web site of '08 candidate Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

The TechPresident site also links to a graph that charts how often the Democratic and Republican candidates for president are mentioned by name in the blogosphere. Edwards got a major blog bump after he announced his campaign would continue despite the return of his wife's cancer. The site also tracks how many views each candidates' videos get on YouTube.

Much has changed since 2004, when Joe Trippi ushered in a new era of Internet politics with Democrat Howard Dean's campaign -- the first of its kind to tap into an online community for support and money.

Fast-forward to today, when the '08 presidential campaigns are scrambling to hire Internet media experts, outfit their Web sites with fundraising tools, blogs and video, and are posting profiles on social networking sites.

"The Internet and the social networking is certainly a new avenue that allows our campaign to communicate John McCain's common-sense conservatism," said Matt David, spokesman for McCain's '08 campaign.

"Our focus is going to be on maximizing our ability to communicate John McCain's message, and we're going to utilize every avenue, including the Internet, including social networking," he said.

But Rasiej argues that most of the '08 candidates haven't even scratched the surface of possibilities.

"The Internet is no longer an adjunct to traditional politics, but rather an entirely separate battlefield and one that we feel is more of a pacesetter for the rest of the campaigns than the rest of the traditional political system recognizes," Rasiej said.

"Politicians will say, 'Well yeah, we use the Internet to reach out to young people.' But sure, young people are online, but they don't really vote so they don't really care about young people," he said.

"There's a mistake being made to assume that the Internet only reaches younger voters or only those voters that are online," said Rasiej, adding that mainstream media outlets routinely covered news generated from blogs or YouTube video.

"So the Internet is really like the conductor here, and to be honest we don't think anybody in the traditional mainstream politics has recognized this yet, so we decided to build a site to showcase it," he said.

Other interactive media experts agree.

"They're not going nearly far enough yet," said Jeff Jarvis, director of the new media program at City University of New York's graduate school of journalism.

Jarvis has started his own '08 campaign Web site, www.PrezVid.com, which evaluates '08 candidate video, including attack videos.

"McCain's videos are far too slick, far too much like commercials," Jarvis said. "This medium is very human. You're at eye level with people. I click on their face and I want them to talk to me and they need to talk to me."

He said politicians in England and France were outpacing the Americans.

"They're doing amazing things there," he said. "Our candidates are not using this nearly enough for interaction."

He argued that candidates should be spending more time online answering voters' questions about issues.

"There's a risk for them of 'Macaca' moments, of making a mistake," said Jarvis, referring to YouTube posted video of former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., making a racial slur.

"But we have to get to the point where they recognize that they're not in the same kind of control of their message that they were before," Jarvis said, noting that candidates can now have a new kind of control by posting videos of where they stand on the issues, circumventing traditional media sources.

"This new use of the Internet and politics creates an opportunity for a more robust and participatory democracy," TechPresident's Rasiej said.

Rasiej said the unauthorized anti-Clinton attack ad posted on YouTube, attributed to Obama supporter Phil de Vellis, was really an attack on the New York senator's Internet campaign style.

"One of the reasons why the 'Hillary 1984' ad hit such a nerve and got so many views is because Phil de Vellis actually said what a lot of people were thinking," he said, "which is that Hillary Clinton was broadcasting a message, a scripted, produced message over the Internet, saying she was welcoming people into a conversation, but there really wasn't an opportunity to have a conversation." .

The online community would take the candidates more seriously, he said, if they incorporated more user-generated video into their own sites and responded quicker to attack videos.

"Voters can produce content and push content so [campaigns] need to start thinking about how to use their supporters as additional engines of distribution as well as sources of ideas and content," he said.

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