Just a decade and a half after its public debut, the Internet has become an essential medium for American politics. Campaigning on the burgeoning computer network took a major step forward in 2004, with former Vermont Governor Howard Dean's online bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Now, a crowded field of candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign is relying heavily on the Internet to connect with the nation's voters.
Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton's long-anticipated entry into the 2008 Presidential campaign came not at a news conference or political rally, but in a brief, well-crafted video streamed to the nation and the world over the Internet.
As Senator Clinton and a growing roster of candidates gear up to compete for their party's 2008 presidential nomination, they are finding the Internet, more precisely, the World Wide Web, to be a relatively cheap, highly effective, and largely unregulated medium for communicating with potential voters. The growing importance of the Web in America's political life, for both candidates and voters, is due in part to the rapid spread of high-speed, broadband network connections in American homes, and the fact that a growing portion of the American public considers the Web a primary source of information
"We did a survey after the 2006 elections in America and found that the role of the Internet was growing as an important news source and information source for people that cared about politics, " says Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. Rainie adds the Web is also, increasingly, the way Americans communicate about politics. "They trade e-mails and other kinds of exchanges, talking about the candidates and the issues.
Rainie believes that Internet video, which is already in wide use on most candidates' web sites, is becoming an essential fixture of the 2008 presidential campaign. Even before officially launching his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney created a website filled with videos outlining his position on national issues, and slick promotional messages touting Romney as presidential material.
It's this one-on-one connection to voters through their personal computers that makes the Internet so valuable to politicians, according to Rhodes Cook. He's the editor of the Rhodes Cook Letter, an esteemed online digest of political and election analysis.
Cook says today's Internet-based campaign messages are a far cry from traditional radio and TV ads, where the candidates' statements are reduced to brief soundbites and then argued over by political pundits. "On the Internet, the candidate is able to control what he says completely to the voters, who will be watching on the Internet," says Cook. "So it is a very appealing means of connecting with voters that I think all of the candidates will be using in 2007 and 2008."
Cook notes candidates from both major parties are also using the Internet to raise the millions of dollars needed to finance a national presidential campaign.
But Cook warns that while the Internet provides political campaigners with a powerful new tool, it can be a double-edged sword. "The Internet is multiplying the number of things that could be seen, not only favorable things, but also any mistakes or missteps the candidates make. These can be instantly transmitted across the Internet," he says. "It raises exponentially the chances for problems for candidates being magnified and shown to voters before they have any chance of correcting them.
That's what happened to former Republican Senator George Allen of Virginia, once thought a likely contender for the White House. Speaking at a re-election campaign rally last August, Allen aimed what many took to be ethnic slurs at one of his rival's campaign workers, a dark-skinned Virginia man who was videotaping the event.
The widely-viewed Internet video of Allen's use of the term macaca, a racial slur sometimes used against African immigrants, may have cost Allen the November election. And his loss to a Democrat helped tip the balance of power in the U.S. Congress.
Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project says that all the 2008 presidential candidates understand very well now that the Internet has moved center stage, and merged with traditional print, radio and television to become an integral part of a national media campaign:
"People read newspapers online, people view TV videos online, so, to some degree, the difference that existed between those channels will probably begin to vanish in voters mind," Rainie says.
Lee Rainie predicts the most effective Internet campaigners will be candidates who can move beyond Web videos and tap into the medium's powerful interactive capabilities, finding new ways to engage American voters in live conversations about the country's future.
Last month, in her Internet video announcing the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, Senator Hillary Clinton made it clear she understands the interactive power of the Internet to connect candidates with voters in a way no democracy has ever before. "While I can't visit everyone's living room, I can try," she said. "And with a little help from modern technology, I'll be holding live online video chats this week, starting Monday. So let the conversation begin. I have a feeling it's going to be very interesting."