June 20, 2008 — -- For decades, political campaigns have played out in town hall meetings, baby-kissing lineups and sweaty, but firm, handshakes. Until now.
Ever since YouTube immortalized Howard Dean's howl and George Allen's "macaca"-gate, technology has shown befuddled politicians who's boss.
On Monday, for the fifth year in a row, Silicon Valley celebs will meet with the demigods of D.C. — and the activists who love them (or love to hate them) — at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, a meeting that has become emblematic of politics' recent past and its inevitable future.
The forum's wonkish-sounding name belies its cutting-edge mission, in the words of its founder Andrew Rasiej, "to reinvent democracy for the 21st century."
"I knew what technology was doing to our society, whether in the entertainment industry [or elsewhere]. The same impact was going to be felt in politics," said Rasiej of how his idea was born in 2004. "And I thought that the best way to advance [technology's] potential, to make democracy stronger, was to create a conference that would bring both Democrats and Republicans together to talk about how to use this amazing tool."
Rasiej, who co-founded TechPresident.com, a blog with voices from both sides of the aisle, views the forum as a way to unite "technologists" and their tools with the activists and nonprofits that want to use them. Spanning topics from how technology has changed the way media covers politics to getting out the vote online, this year's forum has brought in everyone from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Google's Vint Cerf to political strategist Joe Trippi and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington. Even Elizabeth Edwards will talk to the blogging masses about about the "failure of mainstream media [to cover] the political cycle," Rasiej said.
"In 2004, we just got started. People didn't understand what personal democracy meant," Rasiej said. "By 2008, with the pervasiveness of the Web with platforms like Facebook and MySpace and YouTube, it's obvious that you can be involved in political life in a meaningful way by using the Internet to inform yourself, to share your opinion and more importantly, to organize with others to change results."
And it's not just rhetoric coming from the mouths of a tech-savvy youth; the statistics bear out that argument. According to a study released this week by the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet or their cell phones to get news about the election. Ten percent of Americans have used a social networking site such as Facebook or MySpace to get news or get more involved in a campaign; half of online users under the age of 30 did the same.
"It's starting to become clear that the politician of the future is not going to be powerful because of how much money he or she has, but because of the size of their network and their ability to engage their network on their behalf and get their agenda passed," Rasiej said. "I think there's more and more people who understand this."
That realization came hard and early to 29-year-old Republican David All, the co-founder of a slew of sites such as Realworldrepublicans.com and Slatecard.com that cater to tech-savvy young Republicans, a group that All says is consistently ignored by the GOP.
"The Internet is not this fictitious land. Everyone goes to the Internet and goes every day and adds something new," All said. "If you want to truly connect with people, you need to do something on every medium available."
All's frustration is with Republicans' failure to embrace technology as Democrats, particularly Sen. Barack Obama, reach out to voters with it. According to the Pew study, Obama supporters are more likely to use the Web for political news than Sen. John McCain supporters: 65 percent compared to 56 percent. Online Democrats also are outpacing Republicans in donating money online, using social networks, watching online video and signing up for campaign e-mails.
In March of last year, All "tweeted" an idea that the president should have a Twitter feed. Soon after, he got a direct Twitter message from Obama — or at least someone in the campaign claiming to be Obama — that said the Democratic candidate was game.
"I wouldn't expect a presidential candidate to Twitter, but every single one of those guys is carrying around a handheld so why not? … They would be able to send a message that resonates with people," he said. "On our side, there's nothing like that."
Despite his frustration, All remains an ardent supporter of McCain and believes it's his handlers who have their heads in luddite-heavy sand, not the candidate.
"I think you've got a lot of people who are frustrated because we know that McCain is a reformer with results," he said. "But we're just not seeing that side of him."
There's more to the forum than just how the Web has changed the political landscape, however. Silicon Valley is making a strong showing to talk about government policies toward tech issues like net neutrality, access to Internet broadband and limits on H1B visas.
"These are the types of issues that candidates never talk about because they don't play well in Des Moines," said Erick Schonfeld, co-editor of the blog TechCrunch and a speaker at the forum. "They're really important issues and a vibrant part of the economy."
Schonfeld, along with co-editor Michael Arrington, tried to bring those issues to light when the blog asked readers to vote for the most tech-savvy candidates in December and January. The site featured interviews with several current and past candidates, including former presidential hopeful and Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney; Sens. McCain, Mike Gravel, D-Alaska, and Obama; as well as Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, on a variety of tech policy issues. In the end, TechCrunch endorsed current candidates McCain and Obama.
"Because so many of the people who are getting information about the candidates are getting it online, people who are Internet-savvy in general sort of meld with some of these topics," he said. "People have a general sense that these are things we use every day and there's government policies that affect the ways we get access to technology. … [They] don't know the ins and outs, but they certainly feel like the candidates should know."