In late September of 1960, millions of Americans turned their televisions on to watch the first nationally televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. These first televised debates had a large impact on the election of 1960, helping Kennedy, who embraced the new media, to overtake Nixon. From that point on, television was a huge factor in elections.
As the 2008 presidential debates are underway, we stand at the beginning of a new wave of political technology. Whereas television was the revolution of the ’60s political scene, so, too, is the Internet for today’s political landscape. Even while watching the major network television stations as well as the 24-hour news networks, it’s not uncommon to see anchors refer to bloggers or Web sites in their coverage or show YouTube videos on air. Whereas television allowed people to see what was going on updated hourly, the Internet makes it possible to see what is happening right now.
Both candidates are using the Internet in a myriad of ways. Although their overall spending on online advertising pales in comparison to television spending, it still makes up a significant portion of their advertising budgets. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have spent record amounts on online ads, with Obama spending over $5 million in the first half of 2008. Their campaigns have ramped up efforts on social-networking Web sites like Facebook (where Obama has over 2 million supporters to McCain’s 550,000), MySpace and YouTube. Obama’s campaign even created an iPhone application that lets you call your friends in swing states and see nearby campaign events.
Looking at all of these sites, it seems clear that Obama is spending more trying to reach online voters, and if the election took place on the Internet alone, Obama would probably win. But it remains to be seen whether his enthusiastic response online will translate to increased numbers offline.
And while the online political revolution has brought many together and informed voters, it surely has turned away many as well. The Internet has made it even easier to surround yourself with your own political views to the complete exclusion of others. Looking at the response online, Obama should be winning this campaign hands down, yet McCain is still in the race. It is easy to become almost blinded to what is going on in the big picture when all you see is positive stories about your candidate. If you visit the Huffington Post or Fox News as your only news sources, you don’t really get the whole picture. And on many online communities, such as Digg.com, if you happen to disagree with the voice of the majority on the site, prepare to have your opinion disregarded as meaningless. The mob mentality of these sites can negate the entire idea of an online community where everyone’s viewpoints are heard.
Although we can look back at the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and say Kennedy’s leverage of television helped him win his campaign, the outcome of this election is still undecided, as is the fate of online politics. It is possible that if McCain wins, Obama’s efforts online will be seen as a waste of time and money, and online campaigning could be relegated to an afterthought, rather than seen as an important way to reach voters.