The Internet and the Political Process: 16 Years Later

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-09-12

The Internet and the Political Process: 16 Years Later

During the thick of the 1996 presidential campaign, I followed the candidates and their communications staffs around the country reporting on their use of the then-nascent World Wide Web. I also followed smaller campaigns and the activities of pressure groups. I reported for a different publication in those days, but my efforts eventually resulted in a book, Politics on the Nets that described how political groups, especially the major candidates and parties, were taking advantage of the Internet.

What I found then was that groups that didn't have a lot of money had great Websites. I also found that a few groups and parties from all parts of the political spectrum were reaping the benefits of this new medium. Particularly notable were Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who was in a tough re-election battle, and the National Rifle Association, which was trying to get its message out despite a news media culture that it perceived was against it. The groups that either had plenty of money, or didn't feel threatened, really didn't bother. Then-President Bill Clinton had a static Web page that was nearly as boring as mine.

Since that time, the Web has become a major medium that can't be ignored, and it isn't. President Barack Obama has an attractive Website that has a lot to look at (if you scroll down far enough), a lot of cool Java features and a place to donate money, which has become ubiquitous these days. On the other hand, former Massachusetts governor and Republican nominee Mitt Romney has an attractive Website that has a lot to look at (if you click on the right buttons), cool Java features and a place to donate money. Both are mostly red, white and blue.

If there is a difference between the content on the sites, it's that Romney remembered Sept. 11, which was the day I looked at the candidates' sites, and had a note about the solemnity and the tragedy, while Obama did not.

If it sounds like there's not a lot of difference between the sites, you'd be right. In fact, if you're not reading carefully, you could mistake one for the other. If the candidates' Websites are any indication, there seems to be a remarkable similarity to them, as if the campaigns have decided that there's a formula to political sites, and they both applied it. Or perhaps both sides used the same Web designer.

The Presidential Candidates Sites Have Many Similarities to Each Other

At one point, when this all started, the Republicans had by far the most innovative and creative site of any political party. They used interactive images and had a well-mapped site with a lot of choices, while the Democrats had a static site that was as boring as Bill Clinton's. That's all changed. Now the Republicans and the Democrats seemed to have chosen the same formula and the same color scheme, although the GOP's site is predominately red, and the Democrats are mostly blue. I wonder if there's a reason for that? It appears that the legendary journalist Tim Russert--who came up with the idea of coloring states--is memorialized in some unexpected ways.

But of course, there's more to the Internet than the basically boring political Web pages. Previously, the idea of raising money using the Web was an innovative first used effectively by Democrat Howard Dean in his ill-fated run for the presidential nomination in 2004. Now, everyone's doing it. The use of the Web to gather supporters' names for subsequent rallies and voting initiatives was something that Kerry's senatorial campaign first used effectively, but now everyone is doing that, too.

So I moved on to examining the social media-something that wasn't around when I wrote my book. First, you can probably guess that both presidential campaigns have a presence on Twitter, as do both candidates. The candidates' wives are there, too. You can get a full dose of politics if you subscribe to either feed, although the amount of actual knowledge you're likely to gain in 140 characters is open to question.

LinkedIn is a little different. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have profiles, and what's there are basically resumes. Obama, for example, lists his current position as "President of the United States." Romney lists his as a candidate for that job. In other words, there's not much here since neither one has anything else posted to their respective profiles.

But there is a difference if you dig deeper. Look for members of Obama's campaign staff, and for the most part, you see a lot of volunteers and junior-level operatives. Obama's senior campaign staff, with an exception or two, isn't there. On the other hand, many of Romney's senior staffers are present on LinkedIn. But does this mean anything?

In reality, the differences are remarkably small, but Romney's campaign staff would appear to be more accessible. You can find them on LinkedIn, more of the senior staff is on Twitter, and there are more ways to ask questions of the campaign on the Web. But whether this translates into real communications is questionable-despite several days of trying, not a soul from either campaign has responded to anything I've sent.

What this means, it seems to me, is that the Internet has become just another pipe through which you run money. Innovation is gone, along with creativity. The candidates pour money into the same ol' Website just like they're pouring money into the same ol' attack ads on television. One has to hope they'll find something new in four years, if only to relieve the boredom.

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