After mentioning the launch of Gary Hart's blog
the other day, I started looking at some of the other stuff on the web for the next American Presidential election and found that there's some interesting trends developing out there. (If you're looking for American political information on the web, by the way, Politics1
is a good place to start, with information and links on all the major and minor candidates and parties)
During the 2000 election, there were a lot of commentators saying that it was the first election to properly use the internet. In a way, it was, with all the candidates having websites and sending out emails to supporters and potential voters, but it also wasn't, with most of the campaigns just seeing the web as another form of advertising and getting your message out. While the question of whether using the web for advertising is more or less effective than 'traditional' advertising might be an interesting one for people who work in advertising or marketing, it isn't for me. What strikes me as most interesting is that the coming election looks like being the one where the internet will be used for its strengths, not it's potential to resemble other media.
What's made me think this is seeing the Howard Dean 2004 blog
. Dean is the former Governor of Vermont who's now running for the Democrat's Presidential nomination. He was the first Democrat to declare his candidacy, but until recently, most commentators have been writing him off because of his perceived disadvantages - he was Governor of one of the smallest (in terms of population and size) states in the US, very few people outside of Vermont had ever heard of him and, despite the appeal of his message to many Democrats, he had very little of a 'political base' (aka 'major fundraising capacity') outside of his home state. In short, the conventional wisdom was that he'd be much like Paul Tsongas
in 1992 - he could do well in New Hampshire, as it's his neighbouring state, but would soon fade when the primaries move on to the rest of the country.
However, it seems like the Dean campaign and supporters have realised this and learnt two important lessons from the past - firstly, that a victory in New Hampshire is quickly forgotten if you can't repeat it elsewhere (see Tsongas in 1992, Buchanan in 1996) and secondly, that you can build a base of activists for a 'minor' candidate through the internet. The main precedent for this was 1998, when Jesse Ventura
seeimgly came from nowhere to become Governor of Minnesota. Rather than just having a website that spelled out his position on the issues and ask people to sign up for occasional email updates, Ventura used the website to mobilize supporters and get people active in his campaign. Part of this was motivated by the fact that, as the Reform Party candidate he didn't have the regular activist base that the Democrats and Republicans had, of course, but it proved that you can use the internet to create a network of activists (often from people who hadn't been involved in politics before) as opposed to just getting votes.
The Dean campaign
has been very savvy in its use of the web with supporters active in many political forums (fora?) on the web (Democratic Underground
, for instance) getting his name known, and prompting people to check out the campaign websites. The campaign has then helped these people become activists in the campaign by a very wise use of Meetup
to organise gatherings of new and existing supporters on a regular basis, letting people know they're not alone and letting the Meetups build a gradual momentum to the point where they now have over 10,000 people signed up for them. So, almost a year before the primaries actually take place, there's already a national structure built up for the campaign at low cost and with people who feel empowered and part of the process. Other candidates are now following the same process, but it's given the Dean campaign an early head start and also given him national credibility - someone who can motivate that many supporters this early in the election process gets treated as a credible contender by the media, with all the benefits to the campaign that endows.
Beyond that, the Web (and especially blogs and discussion boards) is also providing a method for testing the strength of potential candidates and their ideas. Gary Hart's blog is an example of this and I'm sure he and his campaign advisors are looking closely at the sort of feedback it's getting in terms of how people view him as a potential presidential candidate as well as what they think of his speeches and writings. However, I think the more interesting development is a sudden burst of interest in the rumoured Presidential aspirations of Wesley Clark (former General and NATO Supreme Allied Commander during the war in Kosovo) in the last week. He's been getting attention in the US as a commentator on CNN and the mention of him as a Democrat candidate has been getting a lot of favourable comments (for instance, see the response to this Daily Kos article
). It's also interesting that a lot of Dean supporters rate him very highly as well.
Obviously, it's too early to say for sure whether these developments will mean anything in the election itself - the big money that seems to be lining up behind Kerry
could have the same effect it always does and drown out any number of eager activists, but it certainly could turn out to be an interesting election year.
(Before anyone asks, yes, I am aware that there are elections here in Britain next month, but I want to wait and read British Spin
's promised analysis of them before I wrte anything detailed about them)