Political Integrity 2.0: The No-Cost Campaign
$1 billion buys 15 million barrels of oil. $1 billion every 4 years covers all four years of tuition, room and board for every undergraduate at Stanford today, plus change (CollegeBoard.com). $1 billion every 4 years can boost the income of every homeless person in San Francisco by $90,000 annually (sfgov.org). $1 billion covers the average annual health expenditures of 149, 253 American individuals (NCHC). $1 billion is also the estimated amount U.S. 2008 presidential candidates of both the Republican and Democratic parties will spend combined on advertising their promises and stances on the Iraq War, education, poverty, and health policies, among other causes (“Campaign 2008”). And on May 15, rumors emerged that Mayor Bloomberg of New York could jump into the fray with $1 billion of his own money as a third-party candidate. With each successive election, the numbers continue to rise. As the 2008 election season begins, presidential hopefuls announce their so-called “war-chests”, hoping to scare off potential competitors. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the money is wasted advertising only empty promises, as only one candidate will ultimately succeed.
Yet 2004 witnessed a glimmer of hope of change in this business-driven approach to politics. In 2003 a dark horse from Vermont quickly ascended to national fame riding the cyber-waves of support from the internet. Essentially unknown prior to his internet debut, Howard Dean recruited volunteers, organized meetings, and raised more money than any other Democratic candidate online through his aggressive online campaigning. Following the advent of the modern era’s so-called “Digital Age”, internet connections have become nearly ubiquitous amongst the American population, allowing Dean’s reach to extend far and wide. Dean finally lost the Democratic candidacy to John Kerry, but the precedent has been set and the potential has been demonstrated.
However, I believe that two of the most powerful and critical features behind online campaigning have not yet been fully realized. First, online campaigning comes at no cost to the candidate, eliminating the need for fundraising. Second, the internet can allow for the politician’s message and platform to reach either select or diverse audiences remarkably efficiently. The internet has recently demonstrated a trend of increasing interactivity; social websites driven and fed by the public masses have evolved in a way directly analogous to democracy itself. In fact, I will demonstrate that in many ways, online campaigning can serve to enhance the democracy of American politics. I therefore propose that at today’s incidental convergence of widespread internet accessibility, the exponential growth in popularity of social networking websites, and the increasing significance placed on political candidates’ “war chests”, the time has come for a return to political integrity in America via a full-fledged free, web-based campaign.
“Trying to take money out of politics is like trying to take jumping out of basketball.”
-- Bill Bradley, former senator, American hall of fame basketball player
In order for such an unconventional web-based political strategy to become commonplace, at least one political candidate must succeed via the internet. As previously mentioned, this online campaigning strategy is essentially comprised of two key components: a shedding of the burdens of financing and the potential to reach desired audiences quickly and effectively. I will begin with a discussion of the first component, the financial aspect.
Political candidates require money primarily for the purpose of advertisement in support of their campaigns. In order to garner votes, the candidates must reach out to and communicate with their audience, the American public. Historically, such communication has been borne mainly by the “traditional media.” However, this term has evolved through the centuries to include ever-advancing forms of technology. Up until recently, traditional media utilized by politicians included printed newspapers, radio broadcasts, and television spots. More specifically, news of political candidates reached the public in two distinct manners: through paid media (publicity gained through paid advertising); and through free, or earned media (publicity earned, for better or for worse, by a candidate’s actions). The newest widespread method of communication, the internet, has already begun to harness the power of the latter. Supporters and critics alike can freely and increasingly easily broadcast their views online to those who will listen; and as of 2005, the percentage of people who access news online had skyrocketed to upwards of 70% (Journalism.org). Surely politicians cannot ignore this new medium and the large audience it commands.
Not only does online campaigning promise a large audience, it does so with no financial costs attached. Television or radio ads can cost millions, but as Howard Dean proved in 2004, throngs of active, unpaid, voluntary supporters can be recruited and rallied to an online campaign. Such support can translate into free word-of-mouth advertising, as we will later study. The aforementioned $1 billion can be spent toward solving campaign issues, thus fulfilling otherwise empty campaign promises. Furthermore, the candidate is freed from the worries of being outmatched monetarily by other, better-connected contenders. The political decision will be based not on how much money each candidate can spend buying face time, but instead solely on what the candidate has accomplished and can accomplish. Suddenly, candidates with limited personal funds are brought to an even footing with richer candidates, furthering the democratic ideals of this nation.
Finally, those candidates who still believe in the power of the traditional media will not be disappointed either. When a candidate quickly rises in the polls as Dean did in the last presidential race, the media has no choice but to investigate the candidate and report the news. Rather than buying news coverage, the political candidate will be the news. If America’s politicians can embrace the combined potential of the internet and earned media, “taking money out of politics” will finally be a possibility.
“Word-of-net is far faster than word-of-mouth.”
-- Gautam Godhwani, CEO of Simply Hired, a Web 2.0 company
The internet’s promising characteristics, naturally, have not gone unnoticed. As of 2006, “97 percent of Senate candidates [had] live websites” (“Internet’s Role”). For the 2008 presidential campaign, MSNBC.com will not only stream video of political debates, it will actually host online debates and allow questions from the general public. In order to reward new trends toward usage of the internet, the annual “Golden Dot Awards” have been established to recognize those political candidates who utilized their websites, blogs, and other online tools the most effectively or creatively.
The internet is undoubtedly assuming an increasingly important role in politics, as well as becoming an indispensable source of information in our lives, as demonstrated by the earlier statistics. However, I claim that despite efforts to reach out to cyber audiences, a majority of the politicians are still woefully behind the times. While most candidates offer a biography and links to contact or donate to the campaign, only 55% use multimedia, and only 23% post to blogs (Bivings Group). Although some candidates have experimented with networking sites, browsing many candidates’ websites has demonstrated that they simply view their websites as mere digital analogs to flier handouts, not taking advantage of the vast array of features and flexibility the internet offers.
I believe that politicians can now most effectively and efficiently reach their audiences by first aiming for the “Web 2.0” community. What differentiates the so-called Web 2.0 from the conventional web is the tendency for users to directly communicate information to each other, passing information in a variety of electronic media instantly. While it is more difficult to obtain numbers on how many people use Web 2.0 sites, some of the more popular sites have gained national attention and large followings. The most popular website, MySpace.com, boasts over a hundred million users, and is the third most visited website on the internet in the United States (“MySpace”, Wikipedia). Other famous examples include Facebook, Wikipedia, and YouTube. These networking sites are also characterized by being driven by their user communities. This democratic system allows the public to decide what information is deemed newsworthy and deserves to be communicated and forwarded to others. Furthermore, by bypassing the traditional media’s authoritative individuals and relying instead on the honesty and self-policing of the community, the communicated information gains an element of unbiased and untarnished truth. The conveyance of this message captures the desired “word-of-mouth” campaigning politicians have always hoped for, but at faster speeds than ever. If a politician can successfully activate these masses and ultimately move them to the polls, her campaign will be limitless.
“Why do we let the media decide who our candidates will be?”
-- Title of Digg article with over two thousand diggs
To demonstrate the power of social networking, I will analyze one specific Web 2.0 website, Digg.com. The 89th most visited website on the web (Alexa), Digg is an online news website, but with a pointedly Web 2.0 twist. As people scour the corners of the internet daily, they can choose to “digg” interesting sites. By digging a website, it is brought to the attention of other community users, who in turn can choose to digg the website. Then, as Digg puts it, “if your story rocks and receives enough diggs, it is promoted to the front page for the millions of digg visitors to see.” I chose to analyze Digg because not only does it fully embody the community-driven and grassroots spirit of Web 2.0, it is easy to analyze the user constituency by examining the most “dugg” websites – the websites favored by the most users. In 2006, Business Week described the average Digg user as a male in his 20s and 30s making $75,000 or more. In addition to this information, however, I will explore the average Digg user’s political viewpoints.
The majority of popular political websites on Digg demonstrate discontent with modern-day politics. For example, following the April 2007 opening debate for the presidential race, Digg users emerged in fervent support of former Alaskan Senator Mike Gravel. A little-known presidential candidate, Gravel issued strong but controversial statements concerning his fellow candidates; at one point he proclaimed that the “other candidates scare [him]” and directly questioned fellow candidate Barack Obama: “Who the Hell are we gonna nuke? [sic]” (Gravel2008.com). Digg users openly praised his forthright boldness and honesty, claiming “Mike Gravel is the voice of the American people” (Digg.com). When major news networks banned Gravel from polls or showed signs of censoring him, the Digg community erupted once more, displaying their protest by digging stories such as “Let Gravel Speak: Sign the Official Petition To Stop CNN From Censoring Him” to the front page. Clearly, this online community sympathizes with Gravel, an outspoken critic of mainstream beliefs. Although Gravel, an ardent Democrat, achieved much coverage recently, the Digg community also displayed bipartisanship by supporting Ron Paul, a Republican candidate similarly critical of his own party. One story complaining that “the mainstream media is hiding Ron Paul and Mike Gravel from America” and clamoring to “get Ron Paul on the Daily Show” received over six thousand diggs, earning a spot as the most popular story on that given day. The community’s faith in the Daily Show, a satiric alternative news source, further illustrates the average Digg user’s lack of faith in typical media news outlets. Through these communal efforts to deliver otherwise obscure news to the front page and by reaching out to other alternative news sources, one can observe the development of earned media as a powerful movement. The Digg community is ready to take the news into its own hands.
By analyzing Digg.com, one can clearly sense discontent with traditional media outlets. However, one can also see Digg’s allure and the reason it has maintained its popularity in the cyber world. In a very democratic style, each user feels empowered, knowing that every website he diggs visibly impacts the site in some small way and helps convey information he deems newsworthy to others. Digg allows such physically separated individuals to come together to promote shared beliefs on one website; as a result, Digg presents an environment for an underdog, underrepresented, minority opinion. In popular Digg articles concerning the news, many subject headlines portray the Digg movement as a grassroots revolution against the “evils” of the traditional media. I therefore argue that the online activists comprising this community would form a very powerful support base for a politician. They have proven their trust in democracy by continuing to participate in this community and have proven their interest in politics by the number of political websites that are dugg up daily. Not only are these users therefore likely to vote, they would voluntarily help spread the word about a politician to others. Moreover, Digg is only one meeting place of many for such people. Other websites such as Reddit.com and Slashdot.org also permit the submission of stories by users. In addition, political blogs also host many hot political debates. If a politician can reach out and earn the trust of these numerous communities, she has already gained a powerful base, without having had to pay a single penny for the publicity.
“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you're not part of the steamroller, you're part of the road.”
-- Stewart Brand, author
Despite all the enumerated advantages of online campaigning, however, few politicians have taken the measures to exploit the internet’s potential. Although some may remain unaware of the benefits, there are many more who remain wary and skeptical of risking their political careers by moving too much of their campaign into an unfamiliar realm – a realm where they might never meet and shake the hands of their constituency, or hear the thunderous applause of an enthusiastic support base. Some would argue that the size of a war-chest symbolizes how much support exists for a politician. Not only would it be more difficult to keep track of the politician’s supporters, but her campaign would also instantaneously scatter and diffuse into the deepest corners of the web; each unknown stranger who takes responsibility for advertising a candidate to a new audience threatens the well-known political mantra of keeping the message consistent. Still others will point to the younger demographic of political websites, insisting that reaching out to such specific audiences alone will not win an election; rather, one must still reach older generations through the traditional media. I will refute each of these worries one by one, and defend the stance that a transition to this new breed of politics can truly come at no cost, monetarily or otherwise.
First and foremost, the candidate must understand that in the end, the public’s votes are the only numbers that truly count. Although donations might be one display of support, many interest groups might donate to multiple candidates in the hopes that one of their “bets” will pay off. It is therefore neither the number of hands shaken, nor the size of the war-chest, that will determine who wins the race. Furthermore, such an online campaign can coexist alongside a more traditional campaign. Some of the faceless online bloggers could very well be the same people who attend political rallies and town hall meetings. This is further supported by the current organizational role of the internet: for example, MoveOn.org, a popular, progressive, online political hub, allows people to set up and host “house parties,” where online activists can come and meet their peers in person. As for the consistency of a campaign’s message, it is perhaps time to change the mantra. Candidate platforms are often taken with a grain of salt, since each call to patriotism and love for our nation has become a repeated message taken for granted. By leaving the advertising to the community, in addition to the speed of word-of-mouth, the candidate’s image might not seem so contrived.
Those who still believe firmly in the power of the traditional media need not worry either. As proven by Howard Dean in 2004 and as is being currently demonstrated by Ron Paul and Mike Gravel, candidates who secure internet fame will undeniably be represented by news channels. These dark horse candidates are the news. Any attempt of censorship is instantly protested, as shown earlier by the Digg community’s reactions. I admit that it will take some time and patience, but by targeting the Web 2.0 audience, the candidate will find that she has suddenly reached audiences of all ages.
Finally, to those politicians who are still afraid of losing control of their campaign to the uncharted depths of the internet, I respond by observing some recent trends. Politics has recently made some big splashes through online videos and blogs about surprising, candid outbursts. Howard Dean’s infamous yelp at a political rally and former Senator George Allen’s racist “macaca” call gained unwanted attention, ridicule, and criticism. Increasingly so, a politician’s every movement is documented on the internet, to the extent that websites have been erected for that very purpose. For example, MapLight.org was founded in order to “draw correlations between every vote cast and every dollar spent in Washington” (Calore). The internet has already taken the first step and voluntarily embraced politicians; it is now up to the politicians to embrace the internet.
Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated
-- Will Rogers, American comedian
By spending an unprecedented $1 billion on a third-party presidential campaign, Mayor Bloomberg could make a big, shocking splash in the political arena. I hope that one day a candidate will rise to the challenge and create an equally shocking splash by pledging to not spend a single penny. When no money is spent on campaigning, political debt to be bought in the form of political donations and paid off in the form of votes can be eliminated. Interest groups will continue to exist, but perhaps only in the form of online lobbying. Again, I must reiterate that the no-cost campaign requires patience. It relies heavily on earning the trust of an internet-savvy crowd and using that crowd as the launch pad for an aggressive political campaign. But as the news spread, so will the hype and the momentum, the type of hype and momentum that could carry a candidate to success. Furthermore, as time passes and the internet becomes yet more ubiquitous, no-cost campaigning can only become more effective. I believe that through the no-cost campaign, democracy can rediscover and renew its roots in the form of Web 2.0, each powered by the people. I believe that American politics today comes at too high a cost; no-cost campaigning can ease that burden.