Cyber Campaigning: Politicians Use Web To Reach Young Voters

This story was written by Rick Rojas, The Battalion
The presidential candidates don't just want young people to vote for them in November. They want to be added as a friend.

In the hopes of joining in on the growth of social networking, presidential hopefuls have taken their campaigns to Facebook, MySpace and YouTube to gain the attention and support of younger voters - and hopefully their vote, too.

So far, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., is the most popular online. On Facebook, where all of the candidates have profiles, Obama has 250,333 friends. It's 120,000 more than his nearest opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who has 75,159. Following closely in third, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is actually one of the darkhorses of the race, falling toward the bottom of the polls. Yet he has 74,254 friends -- much more than any of his Republican counterparts.

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has taken the social networking aspect of his campaign to another level: McCainSpace. His version of MySpace, launched in February 2007, allows users to create their own website, communicate with other supporters and find ways to get involved with the campaign.

The Internet -- and social networking, in particular -- has become an easy, but politically profitable way to reach young voters, said Aaron Smith, a researcher for the Pew Internet and American Life Project, in Washington, D.C. "I think it's a low impact, low opportunity cost way to make candidates more approachable," Smith said.

Originally, the Internet was an arm of a campaign used to add a little information about a candidate. Now, Smith says, it's the primary method to reach the desired younger vote.

"That's the milieu they operate in," he said. "That's where a large bloc of voters are."

Smith added: "You're not necessarily going to reach these people by running an ad on 'NBC Nightly News.'"

He referenced a study released Jan. 11 by the Internet and American Life Project and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which found that 42 percent of Americans 18 to 29 learn about campaigns from the Internet. It's doubled since 2004, when that figure was 20 percent.

Social networking has created a more intimate relationship between the voter and the candidate, Smith said. Just as regular users post their favorite quotes, books and movies, and parts of their private lives, so do the candidates.

Obama lists his interests as basketball, writing and "loafing w/ kids," and one of his favorite books is "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison on Facebook. (The author, who famously dubbed Bill Clinton the nation's first black president, endorsed Obama Monday.) Romney's profile shows his favorite activities include spending time with his grandchildren and his favorite musicians re Roy Orbison and The Beatles.

Clinton used her space to make more of a campaign spiel.

"From that classic suburban childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois," the "About me" from her profile states, which was copied and pasted from her campaign website, "I went on to become of America's foremost advocates for children and families; an attorney twice voted one of the most influential in America; a First Lady of Arkansas who helped transform schools; a bestselling author; a First Lady for American who helped transform that role, becoming a champion for health care and families at home and a champion of women's rights and human rights around the world."

She did admit, though, that chocolate was her worst habit on her MySpace page.

The concept of presidential candidates sharing portions of their private lives with the public is not something that is necessarily limited to the growth of the Internet, Smith said. He recalled the MTV debate during the 1992 presidential race when moderators asked then-Gov. Clinton, -Ark., if he wore boxers or briefs. (His answer: "Both.")

But what the Internet has added, he said, is connectivity. "It's opened up dialogue," Smith said. Campaigns and supporters in the field, in addition to voters looking to learn more, can use it as a tool to ask questions, seek answers and, for some, stump for their candidate, he said.

"A candidate who doesn't take advantage of this is clearly out of the loop and out of touch with young people," said Nick Antis, class of 2005 and a Rhodes scholar studying biochemistry at the University of Oxford, in Oxford, England. He's a Facebook friend with Barack Obama.

Antis said he first remembers the Internet becoming central to a presidential campaign with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's 2004 bid. It has grown to include not just campaign websites, but a forum for fundraising, social networking and commentary though blogs, said Antis, who maintains a blog of his own, focusing on the intersection of science and politics.

His candidate, Obama, at 46, is the youngest in the race and has grasped the importance and the potential of the Internet, Antis said. He said he is using it to reach young people with a message of hope and a defiance of cynicism.

Chris Buckley, a member of the College Republicans, had former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., as his candidate on Facebook until he dropped out earlier in January. He's switched allegiances to Romney, his second choice.

Buckley, a sophomore political science major, said social networking for candidate should provide a starting point for young people and candidate to get to know each other. "It's a way to motivate young voters to pay more attention," he said.

The remaining test for the Internet, according to Smith, is whether more Facebook friends means more votes. He said he's not sure. "The big question is whether that will drive voting behavior," Smith said. "That's very open."

It's his hope, Buckley said, that young people will not vote based solely off the content of a Facebook or MySpace profile. Instead, he said, "I hope it could be the spark that could light some interest."
© 2008 The Battalion via U-WIRE