Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
CHICAGO — Whatever happens to the balance of political power today, this will be a landmark election in terms of the Internet's role.
The Web already was the province of a more detailed and more vigorous (or at least more frequently updated) back-and-forth on the issues than you could find in print media or on TV.
With Howard Dean's Democratic presidential run in 2004, it started to show its muscle as a source of contributions. Little people in big numbers could make small amounts add up to the fundraising equivalent of a scream.
But despite the well-chronicled Dean online efforts, here, perhaps, is a surprise: In the U.S., Republicans out-populate Democrats on the Web by 37 to 31 percent (with 17 percent independent), according to a new study from the Nielsen/NetRatings Internet audience measurement firm.
For the 2006 midterm elections next Tuesday, more people, especially younger adults, are looking to the Web for political news, and the power of Internet video is making local elections national.
Suddenly, with virtually no effort, you can see every political ad from all around the country, even the Republican National Committee's subtle "These are the stakes" spot (featuring Osama bin Laden and a mushroom cloud).
Look at this year's ads in the aggregate, with the Democrats using President Bush the way the Republicans use bin Laden, and you realize that this is a very good time to be an announcer with a scary voice.
Suddenly U.S. Sen. George Allen, R.-Va., using a racial slur against a dark-skinned worker for a rival campaign isn't just something people read about. Thanks to YouTube and other video-posting sites, it's a matter of public record, easy to find, easy to forward, easy to witness in its undeniable awfulness.
The same holds true for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, hemming and hawing in response to questions about an extraordinarily large gift his daughter received. The full clip said more than any snippet excerpted on TV news ever could.
And people can take such clips, send them around and build on them, says Robert Arena, an Internet consultant who ran Web efforts for prominent Republicans including Bob Dole, Christine Todd Whitman and George Pataki.
"George Allen should have been coasting to re-election and well on his way to making a bid for the Republican presidential nomination," says Arena, now vice president and interactive director of Carton Donofrio Partners, a marketing firm in Baltimore. But YouTube and bloggers "allowed a national, not local, audience to see that video."
Allen's rival, Jim Webb, didn't have to bother figuring out what to do with the video. By the time his campaign might have reacted with an ad or a news release, the clip was already zooming through the blogosphere, driving money to Webb's campaign.
"The definition of local, I think, has changed because of this," Arena says. "If you're in a state that doesn't have a competitive race but you still want to have an influence, you're incentivized to consider that race in Virginia a local election."
The same thing happened in the Connecticut Democratic primary earlier this year, a race in which liberal bloggers nationwide made it their cause to try to defeat Sen. Joe Lieberman, considered to have been too accommodating to the Republican Bush administration. Lieberman, a three-term incumbent, lost the primary and is now running as an independent.
"It's sort of like `EdTV,'" the movie about a man being followed by cameras at every moment, says Charlotte Walker, chief operating officer of the New York trend-watching firm BrainReserve. "Candidates are going to be under constant surveillance. They can show up anywhere, at any time, on any Web site."
So candidates have begun courting the Web sites. Most notably, Democratic presidential hopefuls trekked out to Las Vegas for the first-ever face-to-face meeting of the popular and influential DailyKos blog in June, signaling the rise of bloggers to a level equivalent, in campaigners' eyes, to that of a big newspaper's editorial board. (Incidentally, the next YearlyKos meeting, as it's called, is set for Chicago next in August.)
But politics online isn't just about the power of YouTube. It is, of course, also about all the information that's available, a sort of League of Women Voters pamphlet turned into a multivolume encyclopedia. And people, even the notoriously uninterested young adults, seem to be availing themselves of the resource.
After bloggers' personal lives, the most common topic in the rapidly growing blogosphere is politics, and Web users know it. This summer, even before the midterm elections had really heated up, the Pew Internet & American Life Project surveyed Americans and found that 19 percent had gone online for political news.
That's the same proportion that did so in November of 2004, right before the last presidential election. Compared with the last midterm election, the numbers are way up, says John B. Horrigan, the Internet project's associate director. Pew found that in the 18-to-29 age range, the use of the Web for political news had grown 205 percent.
"Young people are certainly relatively more interested in getting news about politics online in this election cycle than they were four years ago," Horrigan says. "I think that speaks in part to the YouTube phenomenon."
(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.
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