Sunday, January 21, 2007

"Hillary and the Democrats choose web as the new deal"

Guardian UK:
Democratic presidential hopefuls showed over the weekend the increasing dominance of the web as a political tool. Hillary Clinton and the lesser-known Bill Richardson both opted against the traditional launch - a televised speech in a hall or other public arena, surrounded by family, flags and a few dozen supporters - and announced their intentions on the internet.
Mrs Clinton, the frontrunner, made her case for the Democratic nomination on Saturday on her website (, the centrepiece of which was a well-rehearsed video in which she said: "I'm in and I am in to win." She promised to hold web chats today, tomorrow and Wednesday: "Let's talk. Let's chat," she said.

Mr Richardson, a Democratic outsider, also made his announcement yesterday by video. The old media, CNN, was reduced to showing his web video in its hourly broadcasts.

They both follow Barack Obama, the main challenger to Mrs Clinton, who put out his video on Tuesday, a slightly jerky and less sophisticated effort than Mrs Clinton's, but still significant.

The choice of the web confirms a fast-growing trend in the US, where the web is becoming an integral part of the political process. Politicians and activists pay almost as much attention now to blogs as they do to traditional news sources. But the web is challenging not just the traditional media but also techniques that have been popular for two decades, such as focus groups and advertising.

The web may be free but it also offers access to a demographic group that could prove vital in securing the Democratic nomination - young voters. In 2004 some 80% of Democratic supporters between 18 and 34 made their contributions online. The web also offered Mrs Clinton a chance to alter the unflattering image of her as cool and distant.

To tackle her aloof image, her advisers carefully chose a warm, intimate background for her video - a sofa, soft table light - and combined it with a conversational tone and relaxed body language. Her video contrasts with the announcement the same day by Republican hopeful Senator Sam Brownback, who opted for a traditional televised speech at a rostrum in Topeka, Kansas, that looked tired by comparison. The Republicans, who have successfully exploited talk-radio to reach voters in past presidential elections, have been slower than the Democrats to embrace the web.

The US political class first became aware of the web's power in 2004 when Howard Dean unexpectedly secured frontrunner status in the early Democratic race through fundraising on the web. Interest has grown rapidly since, with teams conscious that 70% of Americans have access to the net and 50 million go to it for news every day.

Bloggers have also shaped elections, revealing stories and presenting views that have undermined candidates. George Allen, a Republican hopeful, had his hopes destroyed last year when a videoclip showed him calling a man, from an Indian background "macaca".

The web also offers an alternative for campaign teams wanting to leak damaging information. Leaks to the press can be traced back: anonymous postings on the web can be harder to track.

Democratic activists regularly turn to blogs by liberal and leftwing writers and editors whose views would not otherwise have widespread distribution. These blogs can give specific groups, such as the anti-war movement, influence out of all proportion to their numbers. One of Mrs Clinton's weaknesses among anti-war activists is that she voted in 2002 to give George Bush the authority for the Iraq war. Conscious of this, she put on her website on Saturday a link to a Washington Post article last week detailing her shift to increasing criticism of Mr Bush's war conduct. John Edwards, tucked behind Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama in the race, has long embraced the web. Hours spent talking to small groups in homes of supporters or making speeches in halls are now devoted to documentary-style, informal web videos.

But while the political potential of the web is enormous, the limitations will be exposed in next January's primaries. The number of potential voters is so small that the best way to influence them remains face to face, and that is what Mrs Clinton, Mr Obama and Mr Edwards will be doing - assuming their web campaigns have done the work to keep them in the race.

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