US election: the net changed politics if not the president

Last Tuesday night the Grand Committee Room in Westminster played host to an impressive range of speakers, each reflecting on the role of the Internet in the recent US Presidential campaign. Slugger was there to cover it…

Who uses the net for politics?

Professor Stephen Coleman of the Oxford Internet Institute, drew from research he’d commissioned from YouGov. Days before the US poll, a sample of 3,500 Internet users, was asked to rank the importance of various sources using a Likert scale from 1-10.

Unsurprisingly 60% of the whole sample put television in the highest-ranking (i.e. between 8 and 10) source for information on the election. The Internet came in second at about 50%, just ahead of family and friends. Overall, men rate it higher than women.

The key group of 18-24 year olds, rate the Internet by far their most important source. Whilst this group is not demographically significant at present, their impact will increase, as they grow older. Older men favour the net to donate money to political parties.

Direct lessons from the US

The South Carolina based founder of Politics Online (URL), Phil Noble opened with a pitch to political parties, “Follow the money. If your website is not a profit centre, you’re doing something wrong”.

In the 2004 campaign, Howard Dean led the way, not simply in raising money, but in galvanising support for a campaign that “began with three people in a pizza parlour in Vermont” and became a massive bottom up’ campaign that “began through the Democratic base gradually taking in gay rights, anti war and peace groups” across the country.

After Dean’s exit from the primary race, John Kerry was quick to learn the lesson. He went from having to re-mortgage his house at the beginning of the presidential campaign, to raising a total of $220 million by the end – easily out-doing the official Bush campaign. Of that total, $82 million was raised on the net: $5.7 million in the course of one day.

Noble also highlighted the fact that some of the most effective moves in the campaign came from outside the parties themselves. The ad hoc group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (URL), effectively neutralised Kerry’s attempt to capitalise on his war record in Vietnam. Its video with several veterans throwing doubt on the veracity of his medal honours, was only shown once on TV in Ohio, yet in West Virginia, where it was never shown, 65% said they’d seen it on the Internet.

Texans for Truth, organised by one man in Texas, raised enough money to get their own video, this time with veteran National Guardsmen testifying to the fact they’d never seen George Bush in the Unit he’d been supposed to be in during the Vietnam War.

Professor Coleman, reiterated the importance of third parties in driving online activity. He was particularly scathing of government and other officially sponsored attempts to engage online audiences with sites that often look as if “they’d been quickly thrown together by an unemployed gravedigger”.

Coleman believes that even if “older monolithic news transmission of politics is failing”, most political parties have been reluctant to embrace the more edgy dangerous world of the Internet. Here the communication mode is person to person: “Rather parties want something akin to the television production that they can control”.

So why’s the net important? It comes back to those 18 to 24 year olds who see the Internet as a key informational resource. If this group, as Coleman’s research implies, are using the net in ways which are qualitatively significant, they may be less likely to come near ‘one way only’ party websites.

On blogging

According to Professor Coleman’s research, blogs still remain the outsider at the political feast. Amongst favoured points of reference they come a long way down the list. Even so, at the height of the election, the Drudge Report (URL) was drawing in something like 1 million unique visitors.

Bloggers have also helped cause some major shake-ups in the national media. The Dan Rather affair is widely believed signalled the end of the ‘Big Three’ broadcasters (CBS, ABC and NBC) ability to set the nation’s news agendas.

In general Coleman remains cool on the phenomenon of political blogging. Though he later qualified this with a reference to Slugger as a notable exception: suggesting that “It’s a good example of a small site that has managed to become a household name, or if not that, a big name in many households”.

It’s networks not the ‘net’ that counts

Throughout the evening – which overran its allotted hour and a half by forty minutes – the primary speakers agreed that it’s not the net that counts in politics, it’s the ability to drive growth through ‘real world’ personal networks. According to Noble, this includes things as simple as Dean’s use of Meet Up to bring supporters together and raise campaign cash.

But also the more focused and personalised technology of the Bush site. With personal precincts, for instance, you bang in your Postal Code and, as Noble puts it, “up comes a map of your local area with a list of 10 people that the party wants you to talk to. And if you’re really good, maybe you’ll come back to us and tell us what they said”

Noble finished with two important thoughts: “People want to act, just give them a way to do it online and they’ll do it. Remember it’s the message and the campaign that counts. A great website and a bad campaign, is a bad campaign”.

Coleman saw the development of politics online as part of a move towards a more conversational democracy. There’s a need to move away from broadcast mode and tell people what it is they need to know as individuals.

Humour is important too. He saw a great irony in the fact that the Electoral commission and other government agencies are spending huge amounts of money to get young people to vote in elections when the same young people were prepared to spend huge amounts of money to vote for participants in Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here.

The one question that was neither asked nor alluded to was: if the Democrats were able to harness the power of the net so effectively in raising money, how come they lost?

Of course, campaigns are never likely to be solely won or lost online. But answering that hypothetical question should be something that exercises this year’s losers, between now and the next election.

Other coverage: Cambridge man Bill Thompson – comprehensive, incisive and laconically scathing; Tom Steinberg, sharp and to the point; the BBC version from Brian Wheeler; and Tim Ireland noting where the all the net money was spent!

And a series of questions for further debate?