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The Interweaving of the Internet and Politics

By Scott Proudfoot
June 2005

In North America and Western Europe, the Internet is now an important part of the political campaign mix but it has a better chance of fulfilling its promise of being radical transformative technology in other parts of the Globe.

Hype has been an inescapable part of the Internet from the beginning. The next revolution is just around the corner. When it comes to politics, net acolytes claim the Internet will rival or surpass the importance of television. 

It hasn’t happened yet.  The Internet does not have television’s capacity to shift public opinion and swing voters from one party or one politician to another.

But the web has turned out to be an excellent, even revolutionary, organizational medium when married to traditional grassroots strategies.

The most recent US Presidential election provided a clear demonstration. Both the Democrats and Republicans invested seriously in the Internet and reaped big dividends.  Developments in other parts of the word reinforce the web’s unique utility.

Moving the Dial on Voter Participation

Since the 1950s voter turnout has declined in most industrialized countries. The US led this charge down. Politicians wrung their hands but did nothing – that is, until the recent US presidential election.

Catalyzed by 2000 razor-thin margins, both US parties focused on increasing their number of supporters - particularly in the small number of swing states.

Driven by a combination of web-based technologies, data-based voter segmentation and good old fashioned door-to-door campaigning, voter participation in the 2004 presidential election spiked 6% across the board – and much higher in swing states.

Propelled by large donations from individuals like Hedge Fund billionaire, George Soros, Democrats established separate ‘Get Out The Vote’ organizations with paid workers. They pushed 8 million new voters to the polls. John Kerry improved on Al Gore’s earlier results in all the swing states.

The Democrat’s only problem was Republicans did even better – they found 11 million new voters. They did that with 1.4 million unpaid party volunteers along with 7.5 million e-activists, who sent millions of e-mails to friends and relatives in the last 72 hours of the campaign urging them to vote Republican.

Recruit and Motivate Foot Soldiers
Throughout the primaries and the US election campaign, there were new viral tools designed to pull in supporters and have them reach out to their own families, co-workers and neighbours.

Democrats organized online via ‘Meet Ups’ to gather potential supporters together locally. Republicans facilitated over 30,000 volunteer-initiated ‘House Parties’ to recruit new supporters. Virtual phone banks were used by activists in safe states to target potential supporters in swing states.

Blogging entered the political area as an alternative media and outreach tool. By clustering Blogs, and using them as a channel to listen to and communicate with supporters, the Dean campaign, in particular, was able to turn this new format into an active mobilization and fundraising vehicle.

To get their messages out, Republicans created sophisticated ‘action centres’ so supporters could target talk radio and the editorial pages of local newspapers.

Campaigns also got supporters involved by recognizing and rewarding significant online activity.

Online Political Citizens

The impetus was an increasing recognition that there was a new class of political activists entering the fray - the “online political Citizen”.
According to the US studies this group makes up 7% of the Internet population:

  • They use the internet to donate time and money to political campaigns;
  • They are far more likely to visit the political and NGO web sites.
  • They forward campaign e-mails to friends;
  • They are disproportionately male, highly educated, married with good jobs;
  • While the conventional view is that Internet activism attracts only the young, the largest segment of this group is between 35-54 years of age.
  • They are political news junkies. They go to the Internet for news but also are heavy consumers of newspapers, magazine and television news.
  • They get active offline. They are joiners, active civically and will attend events.
  • Because they care about politics and issues, there are transmitters, influencers and recruiters. They try to get their friends and family involved in their favorite issues; they forward campaign e-mails to friends.
  • They are four times more likely than the general public to donate money to political causes.

Public policy is made by those who bother to show up. The real value of the online political citizen is that they show up! And they donate!  This makes them a prized commodity which US campaigns increasingly covet.

Money Talks

Internet political fundraising started to raise big dollars. First, Howard Dean raised $40 million.  Then John Kerry proved it wasn’t a fluke by raising $65 million online. The average online donation was much larger ($100) than similar appeals by direct mail ($35) at a fraction of the cost.

Dean and Kerry were most successful with news–pegged fundraising appeals that provided short-term campaign goals that an immediate donation would help deliver.

For the first time, small online Democratic donors started to level the playing field against the Republican’s stronger corporate fundraising machine.  In fact, the Democrats were able to outspend the Republicans in several key swing states. (Internet fundraising also acknowledged television primacy because the money raised was inevitably spent on television ads.)

Party operatives now know their web sites and e-mail can create a sense of community with supporters. If they are successful, supporters will give more frequently and in larger amounts. 

The end result of all this internet activity - both the Republicans and Democrats expanded their base of active volunteers and contributors that, in turn, they used to drive increased support (and voter turnout) at the polls and raise money to fund their campaigns.

And In Canada

If US political parties are charging ahead, then Canadian parties are lagging. This was explored in some considerable detail when Hillwatch benchmarked US and Canadian Election Sites last year. See Political Web Sites: Strategic Assets or Virtual Lawn Signs?

If Canadian party sites are less sophisticated, it partially reflects a lack of imagination but also a lack of resources and differences in Parliamentary election cycles. 

US elections are now a billion dollar business. Both the Republican and Democratic sites were multi-million dollar efforts. Canadian political parties are not in the same snack bracket and their sites reflect the differences.

US elections are a two-year marathon that commences before the first primary begins. This gives Internet activation tools a longer time to gestate and build critical mass –which they generally require. Parliamentary elections are over in less then two months. 

American ‘Meet Ups’ and ‘House Parties’ happen in the context of a centrally controlled national presidential campaign. In Parliamentary systems, this type of activity is outsourced to local constituency organizations. We have yet to marry the new technology to our highly decentralized riding system.

We believe these factors make it more difficult for Parliamentary systems such as Canada and the UK to obtain a payback from tools and approaches that worked so well in the US. This conclusion is reinforced by when we recently benchmarked the UK political election sites. This is an area Hillwatch will examine in more detail when we again benchmark Canadian party sites during the ‘upcoming’ Canadian election.  This time we will be rolling in our recently completed UK benchmarks.

Elsewhere on the Planet

The recent US election showcases the political sophistication of the Internet but web tools do not have to be sophisticated to have a major political effect.

Coordinating demonstrations using the web to send text messages to supporters’ cell phones was used first by WTO protesters in Seattle in 1999.  The application has since found greater traction outside of North America.

Philippine protesters used the same text messaging approach to organize the street protests that toppled President Estrada. Internet and text messaging were essential to the long shot victory of Roh Moo-Hyun in South Korea’s 2002 presidential election. Close to a million text messages urging Koreans to get out and vote were sent to Roh supporters in the last 72 hours of the campaign and helped him squeak in. Text messaging was used again in the Kosovo street protests that toppled the incumbent government.

In the most recent Ukraine elections, thousands of electoral abuses were first reported by text messaging. The sheer volume of reported incidents fuelled the street tactics of the Orange Revolution and the challenge to the Higher Court. In the second election, the party had volunteers inside and outside all polls with cell phones in hand ready to report any irregularities.

In many parts of the world, the Internet has become a staple of political dissent. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico used the Internet to gain international recognition and support. As light was thrown on abusive practices of Mexican authorities, the eventual pressure propelled the Mexican government to the negotiating table.

In the Arab world, openly declaring yourself to be homosexual invites persecution. The Internet is the only vehicle open to reach out to more moderate Arabs politically. Women in Iran increasingly use Blogs to talk about issues that cannot be openly discussed.

In some countries with tight central media control, the Internet is the only alternative news channel. In South Korea, the web site OhmyNews has 35,000 ‘citizen’ reporters and millions of daily readers. (It also takes advertising and makes a profit.)

Africa is the least wired continent but it is now routine for rebel leaders to have ‘hotmail’ accounts. Much of the opposition to corrupt ‘strongman’ regimes in Africa is organized by exile groups using the Internet.

China has been cracking down on Internet sites since the beginning yet new sites always pop up.

Much of the future Internet and cellphone growth for the next ten years will come from countries such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia and elsewhere outside of North America.

In North America and Western Europe, the Internet has become an important evolutionary part of the political campaign mix. The Internet may have a better chance of fulfilling its promise of being radical transformative technology in other parts of the Globe.

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955