Obama, McCain campaigns use new technology to the max

By Saurabh Yadav, IANS,

New Delhi : From advertising in video games and specialised iPhone applets to extensive on-line supporter networks and Youtube videos, the unprecedented use of new media and technology in the 2008 US presidential race has implications for political campaigns worldwide and may well be a precursor to future campaigns.

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The use of Internet and communication tools such mobile text messaging has enabled the candidates to bypass traditional media and connect with the voters directly.

When Obama announced John Biden was his vice presidential running mate, supporters who had previously registered their phone numbers received the news via text message and email ahead of the news media.

Though both the McCain and Obama campaigns have heavily used the Internet and other technologies, Obama, who is the clear favourite among young voters, is by far the leader in the use of these tools.

Obama is also the only presidential candidate to buy ad space in video games. Eighteen games, including popular “Guitar Hero” and “Madden 09”, feature in-game ads from the Obama campaign that appear on billboards and other signage in the game.

Within days of the launch of the iPhone 3g the Obama camp released a special iPhone applet that allowed his supporters to canvass and receive up-to-date campaign news on their iPhone.

In the four years since the last US presidential election, there has been an explosion in what is called the “social media”. The media, which primarily includes online social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace, has redefined social interaction for the 18-29-year-old generation.

Online social networking sites provide an alternative and easy way for like-minded people to connect with one another, share ideas and form communities. This enables socially diverse and geographically dispersed groups to come together on a common platform.

The Obama and McCain campaigns have their presence on networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

The Obama camp has official presence on 16 networking and information sharing websites. These range from networking sites such as LinkedIn to the photo-sharing site Flickr.

Extensive use of online video sharing through sites such as Youtube and Brightcove by both candidates and supporters is another feature of the 2008 presidential race and every speech, TV interview and gaffe is publicly available on the web.

Both the candidates have dedicated Youtube channels and thousands of supporters have also posted home-made video clips on the web. In fact, the most-viewed election-related video on Youtube is not by any of the candidates but a small clip by a McCain supporter Iraq war returnee. The clip titled “Dear Mr Obama” attracted 11 million hits.

Modern communication tools provide a powerful means to harness and organise grassroots political support and enable individual volunteers to contribute to the campaigns in an unprecedented way.

The official Obama campaign website provides registered volunteers a detailed script and a list of voters to call. These voters are largely from swing states and volunteers have the option of selecting the state they want to call.

Such tools have revolutionized the extent to which a campaign can take advantage of the volunteer network. Obama’s official site claimed that volunteers using the “online voter contact tool” made 431,645 calls on Nov 1.

Thanks to such online tools, volunteers are no longer required to deal with their local campaign offices and can canvass from their homes.

The new technology has not just lowered the barriers for entry into civic participation by reducing the cost, time and effort involved; it has also made the whole process much more interactive and placed more control in the hands of the individual volunteers.

The candidate websites have also evolved since the last elections and both Mccain and Obama have campaign websites that act as one-stop shops for supporters.

Besides giving extensive information including videos about the candidates and their views on various issues, these also provide online volunteer registration and online fund contribution.

Obama’s official website Barackobama.com has sections addressing specific groups ranging from “Mediterranean Americans” to “People Of Faith”. It also features an “Obama Store” selling campaign T-shirts, mugs, sticker and buttons.

The site also has an “Obama-Biden Tax Calculator” by which one can find out how much tax cut to expect if Obama wins.

Though technology is no substitute for real-life interaction and can never completely replace the traditional baby-kissing and handshake routine of political campaigns, its use for engaging youth, bringing together people with minimum effort and cost, organising volunteer operations and providing an alternative fundraising route is bound to increase in the future.