By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Ryan Mitsotakis is 19 years old, a sophomore at New York University and -- as his Facebook page practically screams -- a stalwart John McCain fan. He's also a history buff, which is why he reaches back a few decades to describe his life as a McCainiac on the Internet.
"Think of the Battle of Bastogne, a central part of the Battle of the Bulge, during World War II," he says, recalling the overwhelmed Allied forces in 1944 Belgium. "Obama supporters far outnumber McCain supporters, and it's like, it feels like, we're under siege.
"It can be a little lonely."
No doubt. Less than five months before Election Day, with polls showing the presumptive Democratic nominee holding a slight edge over his Republican counterpart, there's one place where Obama unequivocally trumps McCain: the Web. And what's most telling about the online drubbing is its spontaneous, grass-roots nature -- the way Obama's Internet portrait is drawn and refreshed every day by enthusiastic supporters, whose blogging, YouTubing and networking aren't controlled or limited by any campaign.
That's best seen on the Big Three social networking sites -- soc-nets, in onlinespeak -- where the junior Illinois senator beats the senior Arizona senator right into the ground. On MySpace, Obama lists more than 401,000 friends to McCain's nearly 56,000. A similar sevenfold gap exists on Facebook, where Obama supporters number 1,040,185 while McCain's clock in at 152,570.
And on YouTube, it's like Obama and McCain operate in two separate layers of the atmosphere. McCain's channel, which has posted 208 videos, has been viewed 3.7 million times; Obama's more than 1,100 videos on his channel have been viewed 53.4 million times.
The most obvious reason for the gap is age: Young voters are the savviest online users, and most of them flocked to Obama in the primaries. But the Internet's potential political effect is by no means limited to voters younger than 30. According to a study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project released last week, 46 percent of all Americans -- young and old -- have used the Web to get news about the campaign, share their opinions and mobilize friends, relatives and co-workers.
And as Obama has made clear, online is where the money is.
"Look, online popularity isn't everything, but it is an undeniable force. Obama was able to out-raise and out-strategize the Clinton machine because of donations coming from the Internet," says Matt Pace of Compete.com, which tracks online grass-roots enthusiasm for candidates.
But McCain hasn't been tapping that source: "If we go back more than a year ago, the libertarians online rallied behind Ron Paul, while social conservatives split between Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson and later Mike Huckabee. John McCain was not really in the picture," Pace continues. "Now, libertarians are still behind Ron Paul, even though he's not in the race anymore, and social conservatives are deflated that McCain is on the top of the ticket. That leaves McCain at a disadvantage."
The challenge exists outside of soc-nets. Though Obama has his share of online detractors, McCain comes under fire not only within the liberal blogosphere -- check the comments on any McCain-related blogs or articles in the liberal site HuffingtonPost.com-- but also within segments of the conservative blogosphere. On TownHall.com, one of the leading conservative sites, "the activist, grass-roots community hasn't completely warmed up to him," says Matt Lewis, a blogger and director of operations at the site.
To be fair, McCain has been successful online in the past. He stunned Republicans when he raised $1 million online within 48 hours after beating George Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary.
And these days, he may have some hidden friends. "I'm in the closet about being a McCain supporter," says University of Illinois med student Chase Donaldson, 23. When he was an undergrad at the liberal-leaning St. Olaf College near Minneapolis, Donaldson says, conservative students were wary of letting teachers learn their political views. And not all of his conservative friends, he says, are for McCain. So online, he's not a member of any pro-McCain Facebook groups.
Some net-savvy Republicans unconnected to the McCain campaign have taken it upon themselves to make up ground. After McCain clinched the nomination in March, Patrick Ruffini, who served as webmaster for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004 and advised Rudy Giuliani on his Web strategy, created a Facebook group, "The John McCain Facebook Challenge." The group has about 6,300 members -- not exactly a groundswell. But Ruffini is optimistic.
"I don't know if McCain will beat Obama on these sites, or that he even needs to," he says. Hillary Clinton "was never as popular as Obama online, and she got close to getting the nomination."
On YouTube, there's a channel called "FansofMcCain" created by a singer named Ed -- he declines to give his last name -- who has written "a 1960s, surf-rock kind of tune" set to a slide show of McCain photos: "As a prisoner of war, he stood by his country. As a member of Congress, he's done the same." And there's a one-minute mash-up of images, text and videos evoking McCain's heroism called "McCain Generation" that was posted in April by Ethan Eilon, head of the College Republican National Committee.
Compare that with the YouTube channel called BraveNewFilms, founded by the liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald. The channel's "The Real McCain" series is a YouTube hit, with a three-minute mash-up titled "McCain's YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare." It's a volley of quick clips showing McCain apparently contradicting himself again and again. In its final seconds, McCain says firmly, "I voted against the tax cuts." Instantly afterward, he's seen saying, "I've always been for tax cuts."
"Nightmare" has been viewed more than 2.5 million times.
You can do the math, but the McCain supporters say they're not giving up. Ask Mitsotakis, the 19-year-old history buff. He first heard of McCain while watching a documentary on the History Channel. Like McCain, he supports the Iraq war. "We needed to get rid of Saddam," he says, "and we cannot pull out now because of security, economic and humanitarian consequences."
He regularly comments on McCain's Facebook page. Last Sunday, he posted a link to a news story on Facebook and headlined it: "Obama and the Dems won't admit progress in Iraq, but Iran will."
Returning to the World War II analogy, he says: "I feel like the Americans in Bastogne, which is not to say that the Obama supporters are the Nazis. That's not what I'm saying.
"It's just the experience of being surrounded but still holding strong, still going, still fighting."
Because in the end, as Mitsotakis likes to point out, the outnumbered troops won the battle.