From the use of the printing press to the televised 1960 presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy, technology has always played a vital role in American politics.
However, since the advent of television, most candidates have been slow to capitalize on the most recent breakthrough in communication technology: the Internet.
Of the 2008 presidential candidates who have announced their candidacy, few have harnessed the full capacity of the Web.
“All (presidential) candidates are missing one or two components. Are they using blogs, e-mails and cross marketing effectively? I would say 100 percent no,” said Thomas Harpointer, the founder and CEO of AIS Media.
AIS is an Atlanta-based business that focuses on e-business solutions, including Web site development, maintenance, Internet marketing and payment solutions for various clients.
In the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush and John Kerry spent a combined record of $654 million, however, the pair only spent only $29 million collectively on online advertising. Undoubtedly, that number figures to rise in 2008.
With Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., bringing in a record $26 million at this point and Republican Rudy Giuliani’s camp hoping to match the former first lady’s efforts, there is no doubt the money will be there.
The only question is how and where it will be spent.
As far as Harpointer is concerned, Internet campaigning, particularly e-mail, makes the most economic sense compared to traditional mediums.
“E-mails cost less than a penny. Mail is a one-on-one forum, there is no dialogue between the candidates and voters. E-mail is 100 percent accountable,” Harpointer said.
Compared to television, which emphasizes a shotgun method of reaching voters, e-mails can be tracked by number sent, delivered and opened. Still, candidates continue to spend millions on TV spots without knowing if they reach their target audience. E-mails can also direct voters to a candidate’s Web site or blog.
Internet ads also have a decided advantage over cold calling potential voters at home, which can be obtrusive. Instead of being interrupted at dinner, voters can check e-mails at their leisure.
Despite the passage of the CAN-SPAM Act in 2003, which regulates the sending of commercial emails, the law does not apply to potential candidates. Even if the ads are unsolicited, blocking them would violate the candidate’s First Amendment rights.
Candidates will also seek to take advantage of viral marketing, Harpointer said. For example, if a voter receives an e-mail from a candidate that piques their interest, they may pass on the e-mail to friends and family.
Internet advertising is also particularly appealing to the ever elusive, techno-savvy youth vote. MySpace, the social networking behemoth, launched a section dedicated to politics and the 2008 presidential election in late March. The section, called the Impact channel will look to tap into MySpace’s 60 million users, 86 percent of (Americans) who are of voting age. The section will feature voter registration tools, candidate profiles, forums and fundraising links.
Every viable candidate currently has a page on the section. The pages allow users to view pictures, blogs and even send messages to a candidate as you would any other MySpace user.
“MySpace is definitely one of the tools we’ll be using to engage Internet users and we’re well aware that young people are the ones who are engaging the campaign through the Internet, more so than other age brackets,” Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., told The New York Times.
Although Harpointer sees no advantage with either party or individual candidate at this point, he does stress the importance of Internet campaigning for candidates who do not have the deep pockets of Clinton or Giuliani.
“I think what (Democrat) Howard Dean did (in the 2004) election was an excellent example of how to run an Internet campaign from a grassroots standpoint. He did an excellent job of fundraising and reaching out to people,” Harpointer said.
The last Associated Students Inc. election saw the college networking site facebook play a noticeable role. Both candidates, current ASI President Todd Maki and opponent Anne Giapapas, had pages on facebook that allowed voters to join discussion groups and view the candidates’ goals for the year ahead.
“We used facebook because it’s free and it’s an excellent way to reach voters. By the end of our campaign, we had nearly 400 people; it was very effective,” Maki said.