Internet and Presidential Politics, 2004

There’s been a lot of writing and thinking about the Internet’s role in presidential politics, particuarly in view of the less-than-expected Dean results in Iowa and New Hampshire. What’s clear to me is that the Internet has barely made a showing.
The Dean campaign used the Internet effectively to raise money and help a motivated subset of Dean supporters to organize in meatspace to do the hard work of winning votes. Even if this didn’t push Dean over the top in the first two races, it probably helped. “For all we know, Dean would still be in single digits as an ex-governor of the Maple Sugar state if the online connection hadn’t happened,” writes David Weinberger.
But let’s not go too far. David Appnell makes the following assertion in an otherwise strong essay: “I didn’t vote for Howard Dean because he has a blog or because he used Meetup.com or because his supporters were somehow more wired than anyone else.” For the record: Howard Dean does not have a weblog. A Google search of Blog for America on the phrase “posted by Howard Dean” turns up exactly one match, which turns out to be a bogus comment.
Howard Dean does not have a weblog. Howard Dean has a promotional site run by a paid staff. This is not the unedited voice of a person. There’s a big difference.
In After New Hampshire, Christopher Lydon writes, “the results so far are not about politics. They’re about an assault by commercial media on the very idea of a self-willed, self-defining citizenry.” Okay, but here’s the question back at you: where do you go when you want to hear the voice of Howard Dean? Most of us head straight for CNN. That voice is edited. Even as we moan about the mainstream media setting the agenda we’re ceding control to it. We wouldn’t need CNN if we had better alternatives.
At BloggerCon this October several people noted an irony in the Dean campaign budget: they were rewarding the Internet, which had helped them raise unprecedented amounts of money in small contributions, by pouring the war chest right back into television. The same media that would hurt the campaign with endless, highly-edited re-runs of the The Scream. But we have no choice, said the Dean supporters. “Dean is too busy to write a weblog”, they said. Plus, ordinary citizens get their political information from television.
Double and triple irony, I say. It would cost Dean maybe thirty minutes out of every day to write his own weblog. The dollar cost would be rounding error compared to the sums commanded by television advertising. It would be rounding error on the rounding error. With plentiful access to Dean’s unedited voice, catching a candidate being a human being wouldn’t be such a big deal. And it would make it a lot harder for Big Media editors to sound-bite him out of existence, as is being claimed.
If Dean took a chance and wrote his own weblog, he might make the Web a more appealing destination for everyday people. Not activists or programmers or professional journalists, just regular people trying to get informed.
What else can the Internet do for presidential politics? How about a well-organized, C-SPAN-style archive of all appearances by all candidates. Sure, the TV cameras are there, but what we eventually see on the idiot box goes through substantial editing first. If I want to view The Scream in context, where do I go to watch the video? The C-SPAN site has a searchable video archive, which is a great start. But coverage is sparse and the site isn’t geared towards the 2004 election. Most folks probably wouldn’t think to go there, and, if they did, probably wouldn’t find what they were looking for.
How about Philip Greenspun’s idea of building a dynamic outline of all the political issues that are on citizens’ minds in 2004? “By November 2004,” he notes, “this outline should be filled with information, presented in a way that is useful for making decisions, all stuff that voters could never get from the mass media.”
How about more smart, non-affiliated political weblogs. I can’t help wondering whether Matthew Gross could have done better for the Dean campaign writing under his own moniker. Do you think as many people would read Glenn Reynolds’ site if he were a Bush campaign employee?
In summary, I think the Internet’s barely shown up for the party. There’s so much more we could do. It will cost money, but we can pay for it if we take all that Internet cash and pour it back into the Internet instead of handing the election over to CNN et al.

4 thoughts on “Internet and Presidential Politics, 2004”

  1. At the Clark campaign, one of my goals was to provide a true blog format for our supporters, and put less emphasis on the “official” blog of the campaign. Sure, we have one but we don’t push it as much as we push the writings and thoughts of our supporters. These are the people out there pushing the candidate and doing all the work. We provide a message, but beyond that the format is open and self-policing.

    I’ve said from the beginning that having strong voices *within* the campaign speaking for the campaign is a mistake. The only star of a campaign is the candidate, and putting focus elsehwere only fractures the attention of the people seeking information. This is why the online community concept works so well. You can have many voices speaking, none of which become an official voice for the campaign yet still support the campaign in positive ways.

    The Dean blog was never a blog and still isn’t. The same can be said for the Kerry blog, the Bush blog and all the other campaign “blogs” that are seeking to capitalize on the media hype around blogs.

    A network of blogs, loosely-joined, is better than the top-down approach taken by these so-called blogs of the current political campaigns.

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  2. Bloggers have every right to try to end-run the mainstream media to make their own personal comments known.

    However, most Americans will not take the personal views of a blogger over the newspapers, radio, and tv news show presentations. At best, bloggers are posting editorials online because their chances of getting their comments in the mainstream media are almost nil.

    I admire the work towards making the Internet cooler and easier to collect information. However the weblog is not the tool for democratic change, not yet anyways.

    Dean isn’t a loser because bloggers can’t sway public opinion or because he doesn’t type into his own weblog. Voters don’t seem to support Dean on the issues he supports. He’s out of touch with the majority regardless of the communication process used.

    Yeah, I’m for President Bush and that’s who is getting my vote. However, I urge everyone to go and vote for whoever they want to vote for. The saddest thing about elections is the low voter-turnout. If we had 90% or higher turnout, I think citizens would be in-tune with one another better. I try to read as many weblogs as I can, although I personally disagree with most of the ideas and arguments presented there.

    Don

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  3. Interesting reflections, Andrew. But sadly, I think there’s a flaw in the chain of reasoning right around this part:

    “With plentiful access to Dean’s unedited voice, catching a candidate being a human being wouldn’t be such a big deal. And it would make it a lot harder for Big Media editors to sound-bite him out of existence, as is being claimed.”

    Remember one of my key sayings: PRODUCTION != AUDIENCE

    Very, very, few voters even care about reading a candidate’s unedited voice. And all his or her opponents will be looking for material they can jump-on and take out of context.

    Part of the blog bubble-blowing is that people will get to know others, or can get to know others, through unedited-voice blogs AND THIS REPLACES Big Media. In reality, the idea just does not work. Because the number of people who want to do that sort of reading is “a rounding error” compared to Big Media.

    This is the power-law curve. And it’s not going to change from just wanting it to be so :-(.

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