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Can McCain Compete With Obama Online?

When John McCain, 71, wanted Barack Obama, 46, to join him at a series of town hall meetings, he dispatched a messenger to hand-deliver the invitation. "You know, you could have just e-mailed this," Obama press secretary Bill Burton told the messenger.

"It's the difference between a horse and buggy and a NASA space ship," said Phil Noble, a veteran of Democratic campaigns and the founder of the nonpartisan political news site PoliticsOnline, comparing the campaigns’ respective approaches to technology. "Obama has given people the tools to create and run their own campaigns," Noble continued. "McCain is still a command-and-control, top-down candidate. Part of it is the difference in age."

"Every time Obama had seven seconds when we spent the day together in South Carolina, he whipped out his Blackberry," recalled Noble. Contrast that to McCain's response when Politico's Mike Allen asked him whether he used a Mac or a PC: "Neither. I'm an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance I can get."

"There is a gap between people who are digital natives and people who are digital immigrants. Obama clearly has an advantage over McCain in that he is a more comfortable user of these tools," said Micah Sifry, founder of, a blog that covers how the 2008 presidential candidates use the Web. And in the ways they use the Web, "campaigns are a reflection of the candidate," he added.

Much of the difference between the candidates is philosophical. "In terms of the usage of new media, there's definitely a dramatic difference between how McCain and Obama are operating," said Ian Rowe, vice president for strategic partnerships and public affairs at MTV, who worked in the Bush White House. "Within he has the same set of tools you use in Facebook or MySpace or YouTube. The age gap inherently creates more of an affinity with the younger generation [for Obama]. But Obama's general approach is in tune with reaching young people where they are."

Obama has also significantly outspent McCain in online advertising, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission numbers by Politico's Ken Vogel. While Obama has reported spending $6.8 million on Web ads (including ads on since beginning his campaign, McCain has reported spending $1.9 million on "Web service" — a category that likely includes advertising, among other things.


Obama has also built a formidable network of online supporters and activists. As of Tuesday, his social networking site had 926,000 members, and he had 946,568 Facebook supporters.

McCain, by contrast, had 141,183 Facebook supporters, and his McCain Space online sign-up contains the dispiriting sentence fragment: "Benefits of joining Team McCain include:" — with nothing following. McCain spokesman Joseph Pounder said only that they have "tens of thousands of members," on McCain Space.

The same dynamic held true on YouTube. James Rainey noted last month in the Los Angeles Times that McCain "is taking a serious drubbing on YouTube," and pointed out that six of the top 10 search results for John McCain were to videos critical of the candidate, and the only entirely favorable clip was produced by the campaign. The results are even less favorable now. Obama, on the other hand, has a front page of almost entirely favorable clips, many of them user-created.

Political consultant and pollster Joseph Mercurio, who worked on Sen. Joe Biden's campaign media team, points to "Obama's vast online reach and networking apparatus, which is set up so when he gets into trouble like with the Wright thing, his [37-minute-long] race speech was viewed in full on YouTube over 5 million times. It means he effectively has a tremendous number of people working on his behlf, telling other people that, 'You've got to see this.'"

The Obama campaign has given individuals the resources to volunteer without ever going anywhere in person, and also allows users to phone bank off the website. "The biggest complaint I've heard about that is it gets so much traffic it's slow," Noble said. "What a wonderful problem."

Any user can pick a state where they want to make calls and get the names, numbers and script. "It's just stunning. It's a totally automated phone bank," Noble remarked.

Noble also noted that Obama staffers aggressively collect e-mail addresses from event attendees, giving the campaign an instant network of potential volunteers who they can call upon almost anywhere in the country.

Chris Hughes, Obama's director of online organizing, boasts that the campaign is also at the cutting edge of using text messages to remind supporters to vote and to tell them where their nearest polling place is.

Members of both parties agree that while candidates' websites have heretofore been transactional in nature, Obama has successfully built a relationship with his supporters.

The Obama campaign "is a collaborative effort that begins online," said Jon Henke, an Internet strategist who worked on Fred Thompson's campaign. "It's the second stage of the Dean campaign."

"Other candidates' websites immediately ask you for money," Henke explained. "Obama's website builds a relationship with a user before asking for money."

And that relationship has paid off. While neither campaign separates out online contributions, the Obama campaign told Politico that “93 percent of all contributions were $200 or less.” (Such smaller contributions are especially likely to be made online.) The McCain campaign declined to provide any statistics detailing the percentage of small or online donors.

Obama's new media director, Joe Rospars, formerly of Blue State Digital, a Web developing firm that grew out of the Howard Dean campaign, agrees that relationship building has been the secret to the campaign's fundraising success.

For example, the Obama website asks donors to give again if the campaign can find them a matching donor. The system will give them the name and town of the person who is matching, and even let them exchange notes and e-mails about why they are donating. "It gives you the sense of being part of something bigger than yourself," Rospars said.

The campaign's different relationships to the Web reflect the difference between Obama's background in community organizing and McCain's many years in Washington.

"When you've run as many campaigns as McCain has, you rely on what's worked in the past," said Caleb Clark, founder and CEO of WeTheCitizens, a conservative-leaning online software development company. "Obama started out as an underdog [and so] realized he needed fresh ideas."

"Whether the candidate gets it or not, it comes down to whether the strategists and consultants are open to new ideas," Henke said. "Obama perhaps was open to bringing in new people, which may reflect his newness to D.C."

"Obama has long been fascinated with marrying community organizing experience with online tools,"  Sifry added.

Indeed, Hughes, Obama's director of online organizing, said that the campaign views my.barackobama more as an "an organizing tool set" than as a social network.

McCain’s Web team remains confident that its online organizing program will match up with Obama's this fall. The campaign recently brought on Michael Goldfarb, who had been blogging for the Weekly Standard, to serve as deputy communications director focusing on online activities.

"The McCain campaign has a new media strategy that is very similar to the candidate," said Soren Dayton, a Web strategy consultant who worked on the McCain campaign. &quo;He has been doing blogger calls for an hour every other week since April 2007. Even at the low points in his campaign, people were hearing him out. And they may have held their fire on him" because of it.

And with an eye toward the general election, McCain has extended that approach to more left-leaning online outlets. After Obama had done so, he gave a lengthy interview to the environmental online magazine Grist. His website has linked to the hugely popular far-left Web hub DailyKos and asks volunteers to serve as "commenters" there (and on other popular political sites across the ideological spectrum) — and even provides them with daily talking points.

"I think we have a strong online operation," said Mark Soohoo, McCain's deputy e-campaign director. "It was good enough in the primaries."

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