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We the Web of the United States

BY Mindy Finn | Friday, June 13 2008

Many pundits, journalists and academics are calling the 2008 presidential election the first Internet or 21st Century campaign. I see what they’re getting at; yet, it’s striking that nearly a decade into the 21st Century, the intelligentsia is finally taking note of online political innovations.

Have they forgotten that Senator McCain was the first major candidate to harness the power of the Internet for fundraising in 2000 and how Howard Dean virtually came out of nowhere with his focus on organizing and raising money online in 2003? I bet hardly any of them recall that Steve Forbes was the first candidate to announce his campaign in a web video.

How about President Bush’s focus on peer-to-peer messaging and activism in 2004 that led to a campaign email list of 7 million, and the Macaca moment and onslaught of web videos by Senate and gubernatorial campaigns in 2006?

Contributors to this site likely remember those times, but for the majority of the chattering class, something is different in 2008.

New media is no longer “new.” The mainstream media seeks to be less “mainstream.” We’ve seen several major presidential candidates announcing online and official YouTube debates. As American voters look for more substance in less time – or clicks – political campaigns and news organizations race to catch up, or better yet, win the web war.

On Wednesday (June 11), I joined a panel of eCampaign Directors for major presidential campaigns at a really fantastic event called, what else, the first 21st Century Campaign, sponsored by Google and National Journal. Peter Dauo for Senator Clinton, Mark Soohoo for Senator McCain, Joe Rospars for Senator Obama, and me, former Director of eStrategy for Governor Romney’s presidential campaign, rounded out the panel.

We discussed topics such as what it's like to run Internet strategy for a major presidential campaign, the changing role of traditional media, what factors into a candidate’s success on the Internet, and whether the guerrilla tactics employed during the campaign will carry over to the White House for the candidate who is elected.

These are topics frequently discussed by the contributors to this site; however, I saw a lot of puzzled, perhaps just inquisitive looks coming from the audience, which was comprised of traditional media consultants, grassroots managers, at least one former Reagan speechwriter, and of course, reporters and bloggers.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Here’s a summary of what was shared, with all of us generally agreeing. Again, it’s likely sooo early 21st Century for those who frequent this site, but I believe it’s a good summary of major current techno-politico topics.

First, what does running Internet strategy for a campaign mean? It’s one of the most exciting, and stressful, jobs on the campaign. Yes, I’m biased, but the reason for the heightened state of anxiety for Internet strategists is that they have their hands in almost every aspect of a campaign. Their focus is not messaging, mobilization or raising money; it’s all three and more. You are constantly focused on maximizing the power of the web to advance your goals in all three areas, while also balancing the interests of those in charge of each area within the campaign. Each of the areas is important because they contribute to the greater movement. At the same time, technology, third party activity on the web, and the activity of your opponent are in constant flurry. An appropriate caricature for a presidential campaign Internet Strategy director is that of a juggler using his hands, feet, shoulders and head to juggle different types of objects.

The changing role of traditional media, what some describe as old media vs. new media, is a hot topic, and one that was discussed by the panelists. It dominated the preceding panel made up of traditional media, Internet media and veteran campaign staff. Most notable was Time's Mark Halperin's assertion that new media, namely bloggers, present a danger to society. He expressed great concern that one day we might suffer because we pushed out the serious, adult media funded by corporations that knows how to cover important stories in depth. A quite arrogant attitude, but I digress.

I prefer to say “changing role” of traditional media, rather than pit the two spheres against each other, because I don’t believe they are two distinct spheres. Rather, the old and new media are part of a greater whole of public discourse. They feed off each other, what Peter Dauo, Hillary Clinton’s Internet Director, appropriately termed a “parasitic” relationship between news organizations and the independent-driven webosphere.

The general consensus was the traditional media organizations are equipped with a credibility that most bloggers, or independent web media, don’t have. Also, as Daou noted, a mention in Jay Leno’s monologue or by Tim Russert is still more powerful than a mention in even one of the most popular blogs. Yet, much of what major news entities cover is brought to their attention online – as breaking news or because of the attention it’s receiving. The “Vote Different,” a.k.a. 1984 spoof ad, on YouTube aimed at Senator Hillary Clinton gained mainstream media attention when its views on YouTube shot through the roof in 2007, and let’s not forget that the Bush National Guard story was blown open by a series of bloggers in 2004.

So what contributes to a candidate’s success on the Internet? Key word: authenticity. True, the Internet creates an environment where candidates must watch every move, every word, and even every blink and whisper. Unless you’re the best actors in the world (which one could argue politicians are), you must be authentic because the web is just that, a web, of information, discussion, images and if anything you do smells like a rat, millions of people will catch a whiff. It’s no accident that the candidates who remain standing in the race are the ones that reacted the best when put on the spot and appeared the most comfortable in their skin.

Obama, a veteran community organizer as Rospars reminded us, has a style that plays very well on the community, social-oriented web. When McCain’s casual parody singing of "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran," based on the Beach Boys "Barbara Ann," appeared on the web, McCain laughed it off as joking around, of the kind that most of us do. McCain, the maverick, the guy who allows misconstrued attacks roll of his back, plays well online. In a web world, you must weather images and videos that are doctored or taken out of context.

Thus, today’s voters don’t expect perfection, but they do expect authenticity, humanness they can relate to. Personality, of they kind they see through their friends’ and families’ emails, blogs, MySpace and Facebook pages, Flickr accounts, via webcam, and elsewhere on the web is what they are increasingly demanding in their candidates.

During the Q&A portion of the panel, someone asked whether we would see the next President utilizing the Internet in some of the same ways they are on their campaign. The general consensus was that both general election candidates – McCain and Obama – believe in more transparency in government, and given that, we will certainly see more of their presidency playing out online than in previous administrations.

A questioner followed up by asking whether the ability for a president to email millions of people regarding his agenda will contribute to the perpetual campaign mentality that Americans tend to deplore? (Those weren’t his exact words, but how I interpreted the question) I responded that it’s naïve to think there is a total separation between the policy-making of a White House and the politicking of the White House. Presidents are constantly campaigning for the hearts and minds of the American people, and public support for their agendas, or at least they should be. The Internet doesn’t change that; it allows more people to be part of the process, even if their role is limited to more education on the White House’s positions and activity.

We have advanced from a time when the few elites in government were concerned with the small percentage of elites in America. Today, we are all the media, each with the power of the mouse to engage in public discourse, for better or worse. We, the web surfers of America, will be discussing, criticizing, and acting in response to the President’s every move whether he talks to us or not. He would be well served to utilize the most powerful communications tool known to man, the Internet, to talk – make that chat – with us too.