When you go to the polls next Tuesday, no matter who you vote for, you will be motivated by words, images and videos you picked up online. There are some voters who don't use the internet to gather information about candidates, but that number is dwindling, while the number of ways candidates can reach you online is growing. Sometimes 2004 is referred to as the first "internet" presidential election, but back then, social networking was in its infancy, YouTube was just a glimmer in some kids' eyes, and Live Xboxes were few and far between. This year, candidates used text messages, videogames, satellite broadcasting and a highly contagious amount of viral video to broadcast platforms, hear from constituents and raise cash. This year we got the first real look at how races will run in the net age, titans clashing bit for bit over your very soul.You might automatically think that the more youth-friendly Obama whomped McCain on the internet, but it's not totally true. According to the Pew Research Center, Obama and his fellow Democrats did reach a wider audience over the internet—In April, 65% of likely Obama voters got election news online compared with 56% of McCain's supporters—but following the VP picks and conventions, as we near the general election, both numbers have presumably skyrocketed. Obama also raised more money online, with liberal democrats three times more likely to donate than their conservative republican counterparts. But the scrappier McCain campaign managed to do some tooth-and-nail fighting using Web 2.0 magic themselves. Here's how both contenders wriggled their way into the series of tubes: BARACK OBAMA When Barack Obama announced his intention to run for president in January 2007, he was a virtual unknown on the national stage. Barely six months later, with just two debates under his belt, he was a viral sensation. Perhaps above all else, he has Obama Girl to thank for this bump. The video for her song "I Got A Crush...On Obama" was an instant online hit, rebroadcast all over television, written about in newspapers, spawning several spinoffs and currently sits on YouTube with over 10 million views. Countless Obama-centric sites flourished, as his name became synonymous with traffic, but it was the campaign itself that made the biggest contribution to his grassroots online popularity, showing its tech chops and putting them to good use. Since the beginning, Obama's campaign has relied on fundraising through online donations. Instead of courting bigwigs with deep pockets, the campaign reports that it has received an average contribution of $86 per donor from 3.1 million people—online. Using the internet for donations has proven successful in an age where even grandmas buy stuff online, but the Obama campaign has broken records for most money raised in a day and most in a month. Obama even raised enough to opt out of the public financing every presidential candidate—including McCain—has received since 1976. Obama's people have spent this cash in the most technologically advanced ways they could think up: • Buying space within Xbox games • Renting entire satellite TV channels • Building iPhone apps • Sending (and receiving) text messages • Reaching out to supporters on Facebook • Streaming video of campaign events • Broadcasting the candidate's whereabouts on a heavily followed Twitter feed Though the campaign obviously also allocates plenty of dollars to the usual TV ads and mailers, it's even got a website that's garnered praise for its accessible design. Perhaps drunk on their success there, the Obama people even launched a second site, FightTheSmears.com, to respond to attacks levied the candidate's way, which has been used effectively to shut down false criticism from the opposition.
But Obama wasn't totally guilt-free when it came to smearing his opponent. While his use of technology has allowed him to compete in states that Democrats wouldn't think they could before, he has made missteps. The most blatantly techy thing thing the Obama campaign put out was an ad blasting McCain for lack of computer know-how. The ad fell flat on it's face and was even criticized by his running mate, Joe Biden. On another tech front, Obama received flack for—until very recently—accepting donations without proof of citizenship. This has led to some of the shadier ones getting refunded. JOHN MCCAIN John McCain wasn't able to get his fundraising game to Obama's level, and did accept the public financing and the $84 million cap that goes along with it. But perhaps that thrift has inspired McCain's more tech-savvy people to use technology effectively—and efficiently. The McCain campaign has used YouTube as its most effective advertising weapon. The site has acted as a video press-release machine, where McCain's people will post an ad that runs a few times in a cheap media market, but due to some inflammatory or interesting attribute, gets blasted on cable news channels all day, for free. This approach was especially effective in the summer when the race was tighter. Obama, strangely, never counter-attacked with a similar strategy. McCain hired Matt Lira, a top Republican "eGuru", to run his blog, which receives a good amount of attention and is well updated. Besides the blog, the most notable thing to come out of his website was a pencil for students with a grammatical error. McCain's Twitter feed only went up in September, and has been updated a paltry 25 times—that's one tenth of Obama's tweets. The McCain camp has also taken to using some old-school tech known as robocalling, the same thing that George Bush used to tank his candidacy in 2000. Today, though, people recording those robocalls have uploaded them to blogs and other sites, so that they robocall strategy has a tendency to backfire. turning into rhetorical fodder for left-leaning sites.
Unpaid Republican supporters have been the brightest spots in McCain's thrifty march to the White House. Andy Martin is the man responsible for the wildest email rumor ever, a thread suggesting that Barack Obama was a Muslim who concealed his religion. That lie, originated in 2004, found a life of its own this year, spreading across the farthest corners of the internet. Somehow, the reddest people in the reddest states all heard it. This inadvertent campaign tactic (strategy?) shows the power of e-mail, though it too is dangerous power: The ugliest moment of the 2008 race was when McCain had to directly confront a supporter and explain to her that Obama was not an Arab, but rather a "good family man." Some go so far as to say McCain's vice presidential pick came directly from a suggestion by a young, influential right-wing blogger Adam Brickley, whose site's title, "Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President" is cheerfully out of date. (Cuz, like, she was drafted.) The blog now serves as an unofficial but "endorsed" McCain-Palin site and news service. On the flipside, it's also true that Palin was vetted more thoroughly by bloggers than by the campaign itself, thanks to stockpiles of information easily available over the internet. Still, like Obama's tasteless attack ad said, McCain is an admitted technophobe, not accessing e-mail or any website besides the Drudge Report. Maybe if he—and his campaign—expanded their horizons, they could have figured out how to do even better playing the internet game. Of course, many of McCain's supporters are offline, and the election's not until Tuesday.