TOPICS > Politics

Web Tools Help to Reshape ’08 Campaign Trail

June 16, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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A new report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that a record-breaking 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet, e-mail or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaigns. Analysts examine how new Web-based tools are expanding the campaign trail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Forty-six percent of all Americans have used the Internet as well as e-mail and cell phones this year to get campaign news, to share their views, and mobilize others. Is the so-called Internet campaign — much talked about in previous presidential years — finally upon us?

In fact, 35 percent of Americans say they have watched online political videos, according to a new study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Thirty-nine percent of online Americans have used the Internet to dig deeper, to access unfiltered campaign materials, which include video of candidate debates, speeches and announcements, as well as position papers and speech transcripts.

And not surprisingly, 33 percent of younger voters have gotten political news and information from social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace. Especially for presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama, the ‘net has been a boon to fundraising. More than $100 million, or 40 percent of his money, has come from online contributions.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: Talent on loan from God…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What talk radio did for Republicans, the Internet is now doing in large part for Democrats: technology as a megaphone to get the word out and as a gathering place to draw people in. The campaigns themselves have taken to the ‘net to set the record straight. Just last week, the Obama campaign unveiled a section of its site called “Stop the Smear,” created to challenge attacks on him, his policies, or his wife.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.

JUDY WOODRUFF But high-profile campaign snafus have also grown out of Web-first mentions. The Hillary Clinton reference in South Dakota to the assassination of Robert Kennedy originated on a Web stream video of an editorial board meeting.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, Former Head of Trinity United Church of Christ: No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The back story on Obama’s former minister, Jeremiah Wright, blew up on the Web.

REV. MICHAEL PFLEGER: I’m white. I’m entitled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As did the story about the minister, Michael Pfleger, who mocked Hillary Clinton in Obama’s former church, helping to prompt Obama to leave the church.

Presumptive nominee John McCain had some run-ins with the Web, as well. His association with a controversial minister, John Hagee, who said Hitler was fulfilling God’s will, also had a long life on the Web. His spontaneous singing of “Bomb, Bomb Iran” was also just a Google search away. It caused his campaign serious headaches.

Obama’s comments at a San Francisco fundraiser in which he said small-town voters have become bitter over job losses and that they cling to guns or religion were first published by a blogger. The event became a central narrative of the campaign heading into the important Pennsylvania primary.

More recently, the story that veteran political hand Jim Johnson, who was named by Obama to vet potential vice presidential running mates, had some questionable mortgage bank ties broke in the Wall Street Journal last week, but immediately went viral on the blog-o-sphere. Johnson stepped down from that post.

Youth mobilization groups have combined old-fashioned pavement-pounding with the new ways of the wired world, from “Bring Your Own Phone” to phone banks to text-the-vote announcements.

GIDEON YAGO, MTV News: We’re giving you, the young voter, a chance to pose questions…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And through the ‘net, forums such as the one co-sponsored by MySpace and MTV and the CNN YouTube debates have allowed people a way to get questions directly to the candidates.

Online video a key resource

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me now to discuss how people are using the Internet and other technologies for election-related activities are: Lee Rainie, he's the director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project that released that study we referenced; and Julie Barko Germany, she's the director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University. Thanks to both of you for being with us.

Lee Rainie, I'm going to start with you. Just how different is the use of the Internet and these other new forms of media from what we saw in 2004 and earlier?

LEE RAINIE, Pew Internet and American Life Project: Each election cycle brings its own Internet stories, because new applications are occurring all the time. New technologies, like broadband deployment, are growing all the time. So video online is now a much more important story in this election cycle than it was in 2004. Social networking has come into prominence in the past two or three years.

We didn't even ask about it on our surveys in 2004, and now it's a central way that younger voters are getting information, sharing their stories, and trying to mobilize their friends. So it's a major new set of technologies, as well as some dramatic new uses of old technologies, that are playing out online this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Julie Barko Germany, is this changing not only how we get information, but is it also changing the nature and the character of these campaigns themselves?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY, George Washington University: It's starting to. The Internet is playing an increasingly large role in political campaigns, especially the campaigns of Obama and McCain. It's no longer something that's cast off to somebody else's office or a backroom. They have full staffs of people doing this all day long.

They have video people, search marketing people, social networking people, people who look at Internet strategy, people who work with the other aspects of the campaign, whether it's fundraising or communications, to bring everything together so that the Internet is one cohesive presence. And there are results, fundraising results, lots of money, especially for Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, fundraising is one example. What are some other examples, Lee Rainie, of this, of how campaigns are having to change themselves because of all this technology?

LEE RAINIE: The big new piece of the story which wouldn't have been possible in the pre-Internet age, of course, is people creating their own stories and making their own contributions to the campaign environment: bloggers, people that post political videos, people that post their comments on other Web sites.

So they're actively contributing to the campaign in a way that was really impossible in just the broadcast age. The Internet age is an age of participation and many-to-many involvement, not just one person broadcasting to many people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about this notion -- I think we mentioned it -- Barack Obama has set up his own Web site now to answer what he calls -- I think they're calling it "Stop the Smear," but it's, in essence, Julie Barko Germany, it's all about dealing with these attacks wherever they come from as quickly as possible.

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: The attacks are, in some sense, inevitable. They're going to happen. That's what happens when you open up a medium to people. People respond, and they participate. So the Obama campaign is incredibly smart in the sense that they're designing tools and strategies to help overcome that the moment something breaks online, whether it's another Reverend Wright video or something else further down the line. This is going to be essential to future campaigns.

Raising money on the Web

JUDY WOODRUFF: And talk a little bit more, Lee Rainie, about the fundraising and Obama's ability to raise, as we said, what, $100 million online.

LEE RAINIE:  Well, it's easy to do. And campaigns are very much encouraging their supporters to contribute online, because it's so much more efficient to process the contributions, to enter them into the software that's delivered to the Federal Elections Commission. And I think what's also happening here is that people are a lot more comfortable with their money being handled online. We have a long history now of e-commerce. Lots more people are giving donations to charitable organizations online.

And so this is a way to tap into that new level of trust that people have under the right circumstances to spend their money online.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lee was just saying a minute ago that this is a way for people, everybody to -- or people to think that they can participate themselves in a campaign. How does that change what's going on, the transaction? It used to be the candidates would go out. They'd make a speech or they would make an appeal for money. Now people want to have their own voice. How does that change what's going on here?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Well, look, for example, at the Obama campaign. So much of what's going on with the campaign, from Web videos to blog posts, isn't necessarily information the campaign has pushed out. It's information that the communities surrounding Obama has created. So political activism isn't just about going door-to-door anymore. It's also about making the videos, posting on blogs, tying everything together, commenting, sending text messages. All of this is a new wave of political activism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it changing the message, as well?

LEE RAINIE: Well, it's changing the fact that the message is no longer controlled solely by the candidates and their campaigns themselves. It's part of a conversation that's now taking place between candidates like Obama and their constituents.

And the constituents really want to be part of the conversation. They don't just want to sit passively back and accept whatever message comes down the line. They are very much anxious to contribute to the conversation and anxious to use these new tools to mobilize their friends, and speak up, and evangelize for the candidates that they care about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with this notion, Lee Rainie, that this change mainly is benefiting the Democrats?

LEE RAINIE: So far, it seems to be. Certainly our data shows that the supporters of Obama and Democrats in general are much more enthusiastic about it, much more active participants in a lot of Web features. Some of that is just due to the fact that so many younger voters now are trending Democratic and are supporting Obama. And that's why they're dominating things like the social networking space.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do we look for the Republicans to catch up? I mean, is this something that takes a long time to cycle through?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Well, if you're smart about the technology, it shouldn't take that long.

I called some of the Internet people at the McCain campaign this morning to talk about a rather scathing piece in the Politico that said that the McCain campaign was very far behind Barack Obama when it comes to using the Internet. And their focus is going to be on creating tools that get people to take action offline. So for them, the focus isn't just creating Web videos, creating online content. It's also, oh, go out and sign your friend up to vote, which Obama's campaign does, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying that they're aware that they're behind and they're trying to catch up?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: And they're trying to catch up.

Pulling more people into politics

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lee, what about -- you know, through all of this, you say, "All right, there clearly were things that the old media -- newspapers, broadcast television -- didn't do exactly right," but does that necessarily mean what the new media is doing is getting it all right? I mean, I guess what I'm asking is, what can the new media not do?

LEE RAINIE: I think it's not the case that the old media, we're doing it wrong. It's just they were using the available platforms and the technologies that were available to them and they dominated the culture. The arrival of this new technology lets lots more people into the party, basically, but it's not so much right or wrong. It's just that new people are entering the process.

And one of the things we saw in our data is that, even as people are enthusiastic about using the Internet themselves for political purposes, they're quite worried about misinformation, lies, and smears being passed out to other people and being accepted as truth and as fact by people who are a bit more gullible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in fact, that's my next question. Is all of this flood of new information, is it information people can count on to be accurate?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Well, you have to hold yourself accountable as an Internet consumer and a reader. There's nobody on the Internet shaking their finger at you saying, "No, no, no, this might be inaccurate." I think that the focus should be on regular American voters training themselves to be able to sort through the material and determine what looks accurate and what looks to be a little bogus.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how does one know? I mean, how do you know which sites to believe? Clearly, a candidate's Web site is not going to put out information that makes that candidate look bad.

LEE RAINIE: That's exactly right. What we hear from people as they assess the information available to them online, both in politics and in other kinds of subjects, is they use their own commonsense test.

Does it fit with the world view that I have? Does it fit with the world that I observe? Does it match what my friends are saying? Or if I'm confused about it, can I send an e-mail to my friend and say, "Gee, I learned this new thing. What do you think about it?" And we're seeing a lot of sort of active social networking in that way. As people encounter information that confuses them or isn't quite fit for them, they're going to ping their network and say, "Give me some help on this."

JUDY WOODRUFF: I guess the most important question is, are people better citizens because of all this?

JULIE BARKO GERMANY: Well, if they're engaging in politics and they've never engaged before, I think that's a great thing.  If people are researching the candidates, and looking at their platforms, and reading what they're saying, that's definitely a good thing, as well.

So you have the good stuff. You also have the bad stuff, kind of like the force in the "Star Wars" movies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Would you add anything to that about...

LEE RAINIE: I would say that...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... being a better citizen as a result?

LEE RAINIE: ... any time that people are involved with political life, political scientists will tell you that's a better thing. Having more people involved, feeling a stake in the system, feeling that they can make a contribution, and feel empowered by these new technologies, that's probably a good thing, although they obviously can be misused, as Julie points out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lee Rainie, Julie Barko Germany, thank you both.