November 6, 2006

The Internet and Politics: No Revolution, Yet

by Michael Cornfield, electionmall.com and Lee Rainie, Pew Internet & American Life Project

When computers and the internet first asserted themselves in Americans’ cultural imagination in the early 1990s, some foresaw a golden era of politics. As citizens gained more access to information and as their voices could more easily be projected into political discourse via bulletin boards, Web sites and listservs, candidates would have more reason to communicate directly with voters. Campaigns would become cheaper and more honest, while the power of lobbyists, political action committees, consultants and other middlemen would fade.1

Recently, as we’ve gained more experience with our new technological toys, a less optimistic take has emerged: Forget the golden era; through partisan blogs, political web sites and customized news, the internet only hardens our views, polarizes our politics and contributes to the nation’s red and blue divides.

So, is the internet the lever for direct democracy? Or is it a wedge for political polarization? Either conclusion may prove too simple. To understand how technology might reshape politics in the years ahead, consider what we’ve learned from the initial decade of online campaigning, and the degree to which both our fears and hopes have been realized. Let’s consider the record on various assertions about its impact:

The internet has transformed political fundraising, advertising and mobilization.

Not so much. However you measure it, online fundraising has indeed increased substantially since 1998, the first year for which we have meaningful data. The growth lines cannot be plotted on a chart with total confidence, because of inconsistencies in Federal Election Communications reporting requirements and industry tabulations and because software packages for campaigns don’t require lots of specific detail on these issues.

It’s clear that the previous highwater mark for online fundraising — the reported $80 million raised in internet donations by John Kerry in 2004 — is sure to be topped in 2008. This year, the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org has already raised more than $20 million, most of it online, and total online fundraising could reach $100 million. Still, that’s less than one 20th of total campaign fundraising this election cycle, which the Center for Responsive Politics puts at $2.6 billion.

Futhermore, the bulk of the political cash raised online is still being spent on tried-and-true outreach efforts such as television advertising, direct mail and telephone calls. In other words, 21st-century fundraising is paying for the same old-fashioned communications mechanisms that have dominated U.S. politics since the 1960s.

Estimates by the research firm PQ Media indicate that online campaign advertising increased to $40 million this year, compared with $29 million in the 2004 election cycle. The firm estimates this represents just 1 percent of all political media spending, and some online ad-buyers think that is high. By contrast, spending on campaign television spots alone might have hit $2 billion this year, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Meanwhile, email is not close to challenging direct mail and phone calls as methods of reaching voters: A survey last month by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press found that 38 percent of registered voters had received phone calls about the midterm campaign, while only 15 percent had received email.

In 2004, Drs. Quin Monson of Brigham Young University and D. Sunshine Hillygus of Harvard University tracked 1,606 voters during the last three weeks of the campaign for the Brigham Young University Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. Less than 4 percent of the sample reported receiving a political email message. All told, they received 2,466 unique pieces of direct mail, 9,627 phone calls and 399 personal visits — but only 254 unique campaign email messages.

The internet fosters political “balkanization.”

It’s not that simple. Yes, partisanship has grown. Analysis of Pew polls has documented how people’s views, especially on national security issues and on issues of personal finances, have intensified into distinct partisan realms. But the phenomenon began long before PCs and Internet access became staples of middle-class life.

At the same time, current Internet use may be reinforcing such developments. There is evidence in the surveys of the Pew Internet & American Life Project that people use the internet to help them find and join groups that share their ideological, cultural, and lifestyle preferences. Furthermore, Pew internet work has tracked the rise in the incidence of those who use the internet to customize the news they get — in effect, creating a “Daily Me.”

But that is not the whole story. A Pew Internet survey also found that, during the 2004 campaign, internet users were more likely to be aware of differing political views –including those that counter their own beliefs — than non-users. This finding persisted across a wide set of issues, including the merits of George W. Bush versus John Kerry, the war in Iraq, free trade and gay marriage. It seems the internet opens doors to all kinds of information, whether we agree with it or not.

The internet combats political apathy and brings new voters to the polls.

The jury is still out. There is some indication in the research of Dr. Bruce Bimber at the University of California-Santa Barbara in 20002 and the Pew Internet Project in 2004 that people who obtain political news and information online are more likely to have voted than those who do not get such information online. But this is not the same as saying that internet causes people to vote. The causal arrow is more like a spinning weather vane here: It could be that politically active citizens are simply more likely to scour the Web for additional insight or political ammunition.

Any number of factors affects the probability that a person will vote, and the internet is just one among them. For instance, in the hotly contested 2004 election, the post-election survey by Pew Internet and People & the Press projects found that partisan identification exerted a big pull toward the voting booth. Those with strong political party connections are very likely to vote, especially in campaigns where the perceived stakes are high. In addition, better educated people are likely voters, and the impact of having a college degree on the chances of voting in 2004 was about twice as powerful as someone’s use of the internet for political purposes.

YouTube is the new “killer app” that will transform U.S. politics.

While some of the biggest claims about the impact of the internet are not yet being realized, there is no doubt that new technologies are insinuating themselves into politics. In 2004, 75 million Americans used the internet in some way to engage in politics. Every serious candidate has a Web site that allows for donations, email-alert signups, links to blogs. Some candidates have set up pages on MySpace, Facebook, and lesser known social-networking sites.

And each 24-month election cycle features a motherboard of new campaign devices, techniques, and software applications. This is no surprise to those familiar with Moore’s Law, which posits a doubling of computer power every 18 months. (Talk about a great Crystal Ball! Gordon Moore said that in 1965, and it has held true ever since.) The appearance of a popular new web application or tactic (microtargeting) regularly generates a rush to judgment about its transformative impact.

This year’s hot new function is YouTube. As recently as the 2004 campaign cycle, an individual with a home-video or a snippet of television programming had a very hard time making it available to the general public for viewing at their pleasure. No longer. Anyone can follow the easy steps to load a video into the YouTube repository, and mark it with key words so it can be easily found and viewed by those in search of campaign footage.

Now, any candidate who nods off at hearings (Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana), runs away from questioners (Rep. Sue Kelly of New York), or comes up with unusual words with which to address opposition videographers (Sen. George Allen of Virginia) must continuously monitor YouTube — along with Googling and Wikipedia’ing themselves — to see what citizen media-creators have wrought.

This could be a major change. Yet, it is very likely that post-election research will confirm the evidence from past campaigns. Online videos will have registered with some voters. Yet, for most, the political news and information on television and in newspapers will have been more routinely part of their lives. It is also likely that the greatest impact of YouTube material will have come through its amplification by the parties and mainstream media.

Our crystal ball

YouTube now takes its place in the procession of internet-driven innovations in politics: candidate web sites in1996, email in 1998 (the Jesse Ventura campaign), online fundraising in 2000 (John McCain), blogs in 2003 (Howard Dean), net-organized house parties in 2004 (Bush-Cheney).

What’s next? It could be spin-doctors using google-bombing to frame debates. (Google bombing is a technique where many links are created so that certain search terms become associated with certain individuals and organizations. Learn more.

Or, the next hot innovation could involve mobile applications, especially text messaging, to register and mobilize voters. It could be video emails from candidates that inoculate them against embarrassing YouTube moments. It could be citizen mashups that weave database material, home videos, podcasts, and broadcast snippets into new forms of activism.

As the technology and applications of it evolve there will be new internet effects to test. An emerging contender is the assertion by some that the internet — and the blogosphere in particular — suit the left better than the right. Perhaps, some have mused, the internet is the left’s answer to talk radio. (The most recent example: Michael J. Fox’s pro-stem call research ads attracted blogger buzz, one million YouTube visits, and challenges from Rush Limbaugh.)

That notion might match some parts of the record, but does not account for such conservative-leaning landmarks as the release of the Starr Report, the online support networks that helped Jesse Ventura win Minnesota’s governorship in 1998, John McCain’s success online in 2000, or the successful ongoing online efforts of cultural conservatives to galvanize voters in recent elections.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the Internet’s role in politics will continue evolving as the technology improves and users continuously adapt it for new purposes. And someday, the iconic internet president may emerge, dominating the medium like FDR did with radio and JFK and Ronald Reagan did with television.

But thus far, the most compelling narrative about the internet’s political is not about candidates’ skill with new media. Rather, it centers on stories from the grassroots: activists’ use of email and Web sites; small donors’ contributions online; bloggers’ passion to tell stories and debate issues; and amateur videographers’ quest to record “gotcha” moments. Perhaps that is the most fitting contribution this technology can endow to democracy.

Michael Cornfield is vice president of public affairs at electionmall.com, a nonpartisan campaign technology company. Lee Rainie is director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

A shorter version of this article appeared in the Outlook section of the Washington Post on Nov. 5, 2006.


Notes

1A compendium of 1990s predictions about the impact of the internet on politics can be found here.

2Bimber, Bruce, “Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power.” University of Cambridge. Cambridge, UK. 2003