We’ll Be Studying This Election For Years

“I think we’ll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to President Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004. “The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down.”

Well, the polls have barely opened and it’s already the conventional wisdom according to the NY Times: the Internet fundamentally changed the nature of the 2008 presidential election–no matter who wins tonight. Here is where I think the conventional wisdom sits and some points I think they are missing about the Internet’s impact on this election.

We’ll let the Times article represent conventional wisdom, and here’s what their points boil down to.

1. Obama leveraged the Net to blow away the Republicans in fundraising;
2. Obama used social networking to supplement his ‘formidable ground game’;
3. Bloggers played a bigger role than in the last election, often ‘trafficking in rumor and misinformation.’
4. But, voters used the Internet to fact check the campaigns themselves, instead of accepting what the campaigns say as fact.
5. McCain didn’t leverage the Internet nearly as well as he could have, or as well as Bush did in previous elections.

Here’s a couple of my early thoughts on how the Internet has impacted this election:

1. First, I don’t disagree with the obvious fundraising point, but it’s not that interesting and will be discussed ad nauseum in the coming months/years. Other factors are much more interesting from my perspective.

2. Bloggers had a much bigger impact than we understand or traditional media will probably want to acknowledge. It’s not an ‘old vs. new media’ argument anymore. Political bloggers on the left and the right helped shape the agenda of news coverage and served to fact check campaigns–and to go way beyond the talking points and issues the traditional media get locked into. Sadly, blogs were also used to spread rumors and hit on trivial issues as our research with Columbia and John Kelly seem to indicate. Early results seem to indicate that this is not a very effective strategy, though.

3. YouTube: Not even in existence in the last election, YouTube played a huge role. The aspect that needs more investigation is the ability of users to create their own content, closely tied to the concept of semiotic democracy or ‘user-generated democracy.’ That said, campaign messages also got out through YouTube. According to the Times, Obama’s substantive speech on race in America has the most views of any political video. This shows, I think, that voters want more than the ‘horse race’ analogies and campaign tactics reporting that the traditional media focus on during elections.

4. Factchecking: The ‘show me’ aspect of blogs and the Internet allowed by hyperlinking means citizens have been able do their own research on the candidates, likely offsetting the ‘rumor spreading’ criticism of the Internet. Since we’ve seen an erosion of trust of all American institutions (media, government, etc.), it’s not surprising that voters have used the Internet to factcheck what campaigns and traditional media have reported, and then make up their own minds about what’s true or not.

5. Polling: More addictive than crack, FiveThirtyEight and other sites have told us more about polls than we ever knew before. How off these polls are from the actual election results will be a major point of discussion, though, and these sites are going to help us sort through the explanations for hits or misses by different polls.

5. Social networking and social capital: Fundraising is obviously critical to a campaign, but we need research that tells us how much social networking led to action for the campaigns, and ultimately led people to vote because their ‘friends’ told them to. Assume a huge effort by the Republicans to catch up on this by the next election.

No matter what, I think Mark McKinnon’s quote is right, a lot of people will be studying this election for a long time to come, for a lot of different reasons. It’s been an amazing one to watch, and will be just as fun to further explore in the months and years ahead.

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One Response to “We’ll Be Studying This Election For Years”

  1. sy Says:

    Apropos your number 4 (facts), Ari Melber argues strongly for Net as net positive: http://www.alternet.org/election08/105810/