With the Iowa straw poll now well behind us, Americans are ankle deep in the 2012 presidential campaign, and the waters are rising fast. This campaign, like the last, will be a proving ground for innovations in the use of digital communications, social media, and the Web.
This investment by the candidates creates unprecedented opportunities for research, review, and participation by voters — if they have broadband access to the Internet.
The turning point in online political outreach came in 2008, with the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The Democrat’s team broke new ground in the use of social media, both to raise campaign contributions and, more importantly, to generate enthusiasm and support, especially among younger voters.
“I think it is very significant that he was the first post-boomer candidate for president,” Marc Andreessen, a founder of Netscape and a board member of Facebook, told the New York Times back in November 2008. “Other politicians I have met with are always impressed by the Web and surprised by what it could do, but their interest sort of ended in how much money you could raise. He was the first politician I dealt with who understood that the technology was a given and that it could be used in new ways.”
Obama’s use of the Internet was, in the eyes of political scientists and election veterans, a key factor in his historic victory.
“Thomas Jefferson used newspapers to win the presidency, F.D.R. used radio to change the way he governed, J.F.K. was the first president to understand television, and Howard Dean saw the value of the Web for raising money,” observed Ranjit Mathoda, a lawyer, money manager, and blogger, just days after Obama’s victory. “But Senator Barack Obama understood that you could use the Web to lower the cost of building a political brand, create a sense of connection and engagement, and dispense with the command and control method of governing to allow people to self-organize to do the work.”
In his bid for reelection, Obama and his campaign managers will try to build on that success. His reelection Web site, barackobama.com, has any number of ways to connect with the candidate.
Of course, those innovations were not lost on Obama’s opponents. The Republican Party and the many Republican candidates already have their own social media efforts at work, accessible through their Web pages (like mittromney.com, michelebachmann.com, hermancain.com, and rickperry.org).
Even non-candidate Sarah Palin — is she, or isn’t she? — has a glossy Web page for her political action committee. There’s plenty of information on all things Sarah as well as links to friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, join her YouTube channel or get her RSS feed — all standard operating procedure for modern political efforts.
For campaign directors, social media are a dream come true. Through Facebook, candidates can drop news, videos, position statements, and more into the laps of the faithful. With Twitter, they can relate every bump, burp, and eruption of a national campaign to all those so inclined to follow.
The 2012 election is not just about presidential politics – there are congressional races, too. And while not every candidate has the resources for presidential-level digital connections with voters, every candidate has resources on the Web.
And these are just the official campaign sources. For a voter seeking information, analysis, and points of view, there are many more. These online pages, together with the constant connections of social media, can turn a run -of-the-mill voter into a plugged-in citizen — a true piece of American empowerment.
But all this election information is largely out of reach for the millions of Americans who don’t have high-speed Internet access. This means millions of voters could be poorly prepared come Election Day.
Ava L. Parker of Jacksonville, Florida, is the president of Linking Solutions Inc., a business-development and community-outreach firm, and a partner in the law firm of Lawrence & Parker, PA., and the voice of The AvaView, a blog on digital action and consumer protection.