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With the Internet Comes a New Political 'Clickocracy'

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

We saw it coming.

Just as MySpace and Facebook change the way we communicate, just as YouTube alters the way we entertain ourselves, just as eBay and iTunes modify the way we shop, the Internet is transforming the way we engage with this never-ending presidential campaign.

Like it or not, we now belong to a clickocracy -- one nation under Google, with video and e-mail for all.

Want to find a candidate's position on home foreclosures?

In the past we scoured the newspaper or found the phone number for campaign headquarters and placed a call. Now we Google "John McCain," "Barack Obama" or "Hillary Clinton" and drown in the information flood.

Want to give money to a candidate?

These days all it takes is a credit card and three clicks -- once on the home page, then on the "donate" button, then on "submit." That's much easier than writing a check and making sure you have the right address to mail it to, and certainly more accessible and egalitarian than attending a black-tie fundraiser at the Capital Hilton. No wonder, then, that Clinton and Obama collectively raised $75 million online in February, roughly $2.5 million a day. If politics is money, there's a new bank in town.

Want to create an anti-Obama Facebook group or a pro-McCain video?

Who's going to stop you?

This interactive medium is rebooting the first three words of the 220-year-old U.S. Constitution for the 21st century

Online, "We the people . . . " takes on a whole new meaning.

* * *

There are some who question the impact or the value of the new online politics. Andrew Keen, author of "The Cult of the Amateur" and critic of the YouTubing, Facebooking, Wikipedia-ing masses, says the Internet's role in the campaign is "mostly hype, personality-driven, the 'American Idol'-ization of politics."

If the Internet is indeed having "great impact," Keen reasons, Ron Paul, the Republican Party's Internet rock star, would have won the nomination. Obama, who's greatly benefited from his online popularity, "would have been successful without the help of the Internet anyway," he says.

Then Keen slips back to his general assessment of the medium. "The problem with the Internet is it's the opposite of nuance," he says. "It's media with a hammer."

Keen, however, is in the minority.

For many, the Internet has ushered in an irreversible and seemingly seismic shift -- not only for voters but also for candidates. Sure, the Web, like TV, has its limitations. A campaign's online strategy can't single-handedly win an election any more than its TV ads can. Still, the Web's impact has been profound. For instance, running a serious campaign means raising a serious amount of money. Without the Web, the relatively unknown Obama would have been unable to mount such a strong challenge to the more prominent Clinton. Nearly 60 percent of the $193 million that Obama has raised so far in his campaign -- about $112 million -- came from online contributions, with 90 percent of them in amounts of $100 or less.

"What we're watching is an evolution away from Washington's control, away from the power that big money and big donors used to have a monopoly on," says Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat and former Senate majority leader.

Adds Richard Viguerie, often called the "funding father" of the modern conservative movement for his effective use of direct mail: "The establishment, the power structure, the Karl Roves, are losing control of the process. There's a new center of power developing."

* * *

Nothing rattles a campaign more than losing control of its message.

Campaigns are centralized, hierarchal, top-down operations. Everything's timed, choreographed. Staffers stay on message.

That goes against the very nature of the Web, where hijacking a candidate's message and spreading it around is easily done with the help of YouTube, a few rudimentary video editing skills and an e-mail list.

There are examples galore, and here's one of the first: On Jan. 9, 2007, a YouTube mash-up of Mitt Romney declaring his earlier support for abortion and gay rights -- positions he later renounced -- went viral.

Less than 10 hours later, his staff countered with a video reiterating Romney's current positions. But the damage had been done, and it reverberated from then on. Type "Romney" and "flip flop" into the search engine on YouTube and some 180 videos pop up.

Steve Grove, head of news and politics at YouTube, says it's one thing for a voter to read about Romney's earlier views on abortion in a newspaper article or watch a 30-second sound bite on the evening news. It's quite another to watch a video of a younger Romney, in a five-minute video titled "The Real Romney?," state, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country."

To Joe Trippi, who pioneered Howard Dean's insurgent online campaign in 2003, this is "the beauty and also the curse of the Web. . . . Like it or not, an army of people are working for you or against you." A veteran of past presidential campaigns -- he worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy, former vice president Walter Mondale and former congressman Richard Gephardt -- Trippi says the hardest thing for him to learn was to cede control.

This is a tension within every campaign, says Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks how candidates are campaigning online. Though Sifry has been impressed with Obama's Web strategy -- "again and again, we've seen how well they've married online enthusiasm with on-the-ground mobilization," he says -- Sifry asserts that Obama's Internet team erred early on. Last spring, it sought control of a MySpace page that carried Obama's name but was independently created by an Obama supporter. "The campaign should have let the supporter control his page," Sifry says.

That lapse, however, is nothing compared with the wariness that many Republican candidates have about the Web.

Michael Turk, who led President Bush's online strategy in 2004 and recently worked as a consultant for Fred Thompson, says many Republicans still think of the Web as "an expensive brochure, like a slick direct mail." McCain's site, for instance, "is definitely an extension of the broadcast, send-receive model," he says. "The overwhelming majority of space on his home page is all about McCain, and not about how real people can get involved." But the candidate's campaign has made some improvements. "They've opened up comments on the site," Turk observes.

Another example concerned the YouTube debate. After the Democratic CNN/YouTube debate last year in which the public, including a talking snowman concerned about global warming, uploaded questions to CNN producers, most of the GOP contenders were slow to accept the invitation for their turn. "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman," Romney told the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader. Pressured by young, Web-savvy conservatives who said the YouTube snub was a mistake (and who created the site SavetheDebate.com), all the candidates eventually agreed to the format.

Mindy Finn, another veteran of the Bush campaign, worked for Turk four years ago and headed Romney's online strategy until he dropped out in February.

"For campaigns, losing control also means letting candidates show more of their real personalities. A candidate is not going to be 'on' all the time, unless he or she is a really good actor. A candidate has to be himself or herself," Finn says. "In this new online era, everyone's watching, and if you're not being yourself, chances are you'll slip. And someone, somewhere, will blog about it, or upload it on YouTube."

* * *

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a chronicler of presidential races for more than 40 years, says the Internet "has the capacity to immerse people in the everyday minutiae of a campaign like no other medium before it." The problem with TV news, especially on cable, is that it distributes a message that many in the audience don't want to get, Jamieson says. Online, where we choose to sign up for a campaign's e-mail list, we're more inclined not only to read the e-mails we receive but also forward them to friends and relatives. Same goes for YouTube. A viewer makes a conscious decision to click on a video, says Jamieson, who points out a recent disconnect between what pundits are talking about in the 24-hour cable news cycle and what people are watching online.

After Obama's speech on race, cable news anchors repeatedly replayed sound bites from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's sermons, which were uploaded on YouTube and linked on countless blogs. Videos of Obama's 37-minute speech, however, surpassed those clips in views. So far, Obama's speech has been viewed more than 4 million times, making it the most viewed video uploaded by a presidential candidate yet on the site.

Remember the axiom, driven by the rise of TV, that politics is theater? Candidates are actors in front of a camera and we're in the audience? All that's changing. Now everyone can be an actor and be in the audience.

"In the past there was only a passive relationship between the producer and the audience. But the audience has also become the producer. That's very empowering -- and a huge change," says Jamieson.

"There's a dark side to this, of course. Voters can only read and watch and interact with everything they agree with, creating a hyper-partisan and largely uninformed electorate. But there's also a bright side where an informed and engaged electorate can participate in discussions that are relevant to the political process. Which way we'll eventually go, we'll have to see."

While Internet usage is still unevenly distributed-- and older, reliable voters still primarily rely on broadcast media and newspapers to keep abreast of politics -- as a whole we're getting more information about the campaigns online than we did in 2004, says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. A Pew survey released in January said that nearly a quarter of Americans say they regularly learn something about the campaign from the Internet. That figure is 42 percent among voters under 30, a historically unreliable voting bloc that has surprised pollsters by turning out in record numbers during the Democratic primaries.

When dial-up was the norm and AOL reigned supreme, the caption on a now famous New Yorker cartoon read: "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog."

Thirteen years and a lifetime later online, not only do we know the name of the person behind the computer, he'll also show us his YouTube channel -- and talk endlessly about why he supports his candidate.

Nathaniel Morris, a senior at Osbourn Park High School in Manassas, has fallen hard for Clinton. Not only has he donated $50 to her online, his YouTube channel is a shrine to the former first lady. The page's wallpaper reads "Hillary" and most of the 16 videos he's uploaded, including a three-minute mash-up set to the music of the metal rock band Shiny Toy Guns, are pro-Clinton.

"I've compared her positions with Obama and McCain and Edwards online. I watched clips of her debate performances on YouTube. I went to a rally in Manassas and volunteered for the campaign," says the 18-year-old, who waits tables at Romano's Macaroni Grill.

"Being a young Clinton supporter is not exactly the cool thing to be at school. Most of my friends are for Obama," Morris says. His mom, Lea, voted for Obama. His dad, Russell, leans toward McCain. "But I didn't want to just jump on a bandwagon."

* * *

So what about Ron Paul?

No Republican candidate -- not Romney, not Rudy Giuliani, not Mike Huckabee -- came close to his popularity on YouTube, Facebook and MySpace, the online social networking trifecta. He had more MeetUp groups than any candidate, including Obama. For some time "Ron Paul," ahead of "iPhone" and "Paris Hilton," was the most searched term on Technorati, which offers a real-time glimpse of the blogosphere.

But it was his online fundraising prowess that most impressed -- and downright baffled -- his opponents and the media. He raised more than $4 million on Nov. 5, then another $6 million on Dec. 16. Of the $36 million he raised throughout his campaign, $32 million came from the Internet. That's $5 million more than what Dean, last cycle's online phenomenon, raised during his candidacy.

That money allowed him to expand the number of campaign staffers from minuscule to modest. But the votes didn't follow. Though Paul earned 10 percent of the vote in Iowa and finished second (albeit with tiny totals) in Montana and Nevada, in many states he only got between 3 and 8 percent of the vote.

So when Paul bowed out of the race last month, the temptation was to conclude that this Internet thing can only do so much.

But take another look:

Although Paul is a 10-term congressman from Texas, he was virtually unknown nationally before this race. Yet by March 6, when Paul announced via a seven-minute video that he was dropping out, the 72-year-old made it further than anyone thought he would. He bested Giuliani, the onetime front-runner for the nomination. He beat conservative darling/former senator/movie-TV star Fred Thompson. He did way better than Sen. Sam Brownback, or Rep. Duncan Hunter, or former governor Jim Gilmore.

For Ron Paul, the Internet did more than enough.

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