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Web Wars

Web Wars

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Mindy Finn, Political Strategist

Many pundits, journalists and academics are calling the 2008 presidential election the first Internet or 21st Century campaign. What do they mean, and how is this the first 21st century campaign when we're nearly a decade into the 21st century?

Candidates touted interactive websites with grassroots action tools for their supporters, blogs, web video, peer-to-peer initiatives, local and coalition-based microsites, online advertising and online competitions in the 2004 presidential race, and, to a lesser extent, the 2000 campaign.

Have we forgotten that Senator John McCain was the first major candidate to harness the power of the Internet for fundraising in 2000 and that Howard Dean virtually came out of nowhere with his focus on organizing and raising money online in 2003?

And I bet none of you remember that Steve Forbes was the first candidate to announce his campaign in a web video. How about President Bush's focus on peer-to-peer messaging and activism in 2004 that led to a campaign email list of 7 million and the web ads that were played in full time and again on cable news? And how about the Macaca moment and the onslaught of web videos by Senate and gubernatorial campaigns in 2006?

Yet, something is different in 2008. New media is no longer "new." The mainstream media seeks to be less "mainstream." Take our own Sunday Soapbox, for example. As American voters look for more substance in less time - or clicks - political campaigns and news organizations race to catch up, or better yet, win the web war.

Recently, I joined a panel of eCampaign directors for major presidential campaigns at a forum called, what else, the First 21st Century Campaign, sponsored by Google and the National Journal.
On the panel: representatives of Senators McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and me, because I served as Director of eStrategy for former Governor Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.

We discussed topics such as what it's like to run Internet strategy for a major presidential campaign, the changing role of traditional media, what candidates need to do to succeed on the Internet and whether guerilla tactics employed during the campaign will carry over to the White House for the winning candidate.

I won't keep you in suspense. Here's a summary of what was shared, with all of us generally agreeing. (I know what you're thinking — partisan Republicans and Democrats sharing a stage, remaining civil, and, gasp!, agreeing to a set of principles.)

First, what does running Internet strategy for a campaign mean? It's one of the most exciting, and stressful, jobs on the campaign. Yes, I'm biased, but the reason for the heightened state of anxiety for Internet strategists is that they have their hands in almost every aspect of a campaign. Their focus is not messaging, mobilization or raising money; it's all three and more. You are constantly focused on maximizing the power of the Web to advance your goals in all three areas, while also balancing the interests of those in charge of each area within the campaign.

Each of the areas is important because it contributes to the greater movement. At the same time, technology, third party activity on the Web, and the activity of your opponent are in constant flurry. An appropriate caricature for a presidential campaign Internet Strategy director is that of a juggler using his hands, feet, shoulders and head to juggle different types of objects.

The changing role of traditional media, what some describe as old media vs. new media, is a hot topic, and one discussed by the panelists. It dominated one panel comprised of traditional media, Internet media and veteran campaign staff. I prefer to say "changing role" rather than pitting the two spheres against each other because I don't believe they are two distinct spheres. Rather, they feed off each other, what Peter Daou, Hillary Clinton's Internet Director, appropriately termed a "parasitic" relationship between news organizations and the independent-driven webosphere.

The general consensus was the traditional media organizations are equipped with a credibility that most bloggers, or independent web media, don't have. Also, as Daou noted, a mention in Jay Leno's monologue or by Tim Russert, (or on NPR - wink, wink) is still more powerful than a mention in even one of the most popular blogs.

Yet, much of what major news entities cover is brought to their attention online - as breaking news or because of the attention it's receiving. The "Vote Different," a.k.a. 1984 spoof ad, on YouTube aimed at Hillary Clinton gained mainstream media attention when its views on YouTube shot through the roof in 2007. And let's not forget that the Bush National Guard story was blown open by a series of bloggers in 2004.

So what contributes to a candidate's success on the Internet? Key word: authenticity. True, the Internet creates an environment where candidates must watch every move, every word, and even every blink and whisper. Unless you're the best actors in the world (which one could argue politicians are), you must be authentic because the Web is just that, a web of information, discussion, images - and if anything you do smells like a rat, millions of people will catch a whiff.

It's no accident that the candidates who remain standing are the ones who felt the most comfortable on the spot and appeared the most comfortable in their skin. Obama, a veteran community organizer, has a style that plays very well on the community, social-oriented web. When McCain's casual parody singing of "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran," based on the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," appeared on the Web, McCain laughed it off as joking around

McCain, the maverick, the guy who lets misconstrued attacks roll of his back, plays well online. In a web world, you must weather images and videos that are doctored or taken out of context. Thus, today's voters don't expect perfection, but they do expect authenticity, humanness they can relate to. Personality they can see through their friends' and families' emails, blogs, MySpace and Facebook pages, Flickr accounts, via webcam, and elsewhere on the Web is what they are increasingly demanding in their candidates.

During the Q&A portion of the panel, someone asked whether we would see the next president using the Internet in some of the same ways as he is on the campaign. The general consensus was that both general election candidates - McCain and Obama - believe in more transparency in government, and given that, we will certainly see more of their presidency playing out online than in previous administrations.

A questioner followed up by asking whether the ability for a president to email millions of people about his agenda will contribute to the perpetual campaign mentality that Americans tend to deplore? (Those weren't his exact words, but how I interpreted the question.) I responded that it's naive to think there is a total separation between the policy-making of the White House and the politicking of the White House.

Presidents are constantly campaigning for the hearts and minds of the American people and public support for their agendas, or at least they should be. The Internet doesn't change that; it allows more people to be part of the process, even if their role is limited to more education on the White House's positions and activity.

We have advanced from a time when the few elites in government were concerned with the small percentage of elites in America. Today, we are all the media, each with the power of the mouse to engage in public discourse, for better or worse. We, the web surfers of America, will be discussing, criticizing, and acting in response to the president's every move, whether he talks to us or not. He would be well served to utilize the most powerful communications tool known to man - the Internet, to talk - make that chat - with us, too.