In 1991, Bill Clinton, who was then the governor of Arkansas on his way to becoming the 42nd president of the United States, stood before cameras and a live crowd and announced he would be seeking the highest office in the land.
Fast-forward 16 years, and there is another Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., making a similar announcement. But this time there is no live crowd. There are no reporters. Instead, there is a camera and a computer that will broadcast her announcement to the public via the Internet.
This announcement, like similar ones made by Clinton's challengers for the presidency, marked the beginning of what has been a campaign season highly influenced by the World Wide Web.
"The use of the World Wide Web and the Internet has become an integral part of modern political campaigns. In 2008, the (Internet communications) person has a seat at the table with the other key people in the campaign. You can't have a viable campaign and not have a strong Internet component," said Matt Klink, executive vice president at Cerrell Associates, an L.A.-based political consulting firm.
Presidential hopefuls have used the Internet in a variety of ways to promote their candidacies, including e-mailing supporters announcements about campaign developments, creating websites, creating Facebook profiles, and raising funds.
But this election cycle, the Internet has also been used by the average citizen through Web sites such as YouTube and blogs, to not only show support for or to register complaints against candidates, but also to change political discourse.
"I think that the agenda of this campaign is more open than previous. The issues the candidates have to talk about are less under their control than any time I can remember in my lifetime," said Tim Groeling, a professor of communication studies.
The rise of the Internet this presidential election cycle has resulted in the visibility of candidates on social networking Web sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Meetup.
At least to some extent, presidential campaigns have built their presence on these networks to reach the often unreachable 18- to 25-year-old demographic.
"Prior to the Internet, it was virtually impossible for an old white man running for president to communicate with a college student," said Jordan Lieberman, publisher of Campaigns and Elections magazine.
Now, that ability is readily available to candidates, and in many cases for little cost.
According to techPresident.com, a Web site that tracks the Internet campaigns of presidential candidates, the largest social network in terms of Facebook supporters, MySpace friends and Meetup members has been built by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois in the Democratic field and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in the Republican field.
This does not mean, however, that candidates without extensive support on social networks will necessarily do worse on election day. Experts caution that Internet support does not necessarily translate to actual support.
"I think that (the Internet) allows students to join a campaign very efficiently. They can pledge allegiance or support to any candidate. However the ability to translate that virtual support to volunteering or voting on election day, I am not convinced," Lieberman said.
In this election cycle, the Internet has also had a profound effect on the fundraising efforts of individual candidates.
"Fundraising on the Internet has been a massive change in how campaigns are run. It is going to fundamentally change the way presidential elections are financed," Groeling said.
In July 2007, The New York Times reported that the three front-running Democratic candidates, Clinton, Obama and former-Sen. John Edwards, had raised over $28million online in the first six months of the year.
The numbers did not include the second-quarter totals from Clinton, whose campaign chose not to report them.
In the same report, the three then-front-running Republican candidates, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, were cited as having raised a total of approximately $14 million online over the same period.
Many of these contributions came from so-called "low-dollar contributors," who, having donated less than the maximum allowed by law, can donate again to a candidate. The maximum level for the 2008 election cycle is $2,300.
"Barack Obama has really dominated. The thing that scares people about Barack Obama is that he has a lot of small donors and he can go back to those small donors and ask them for more money. Hillary Clinton has less donors but they have given more money. (Obama's) potential to raise money is so huge," Klink said.
As of October, 47,643 people, or approximately 25 percent of all Obama donors, had given less than $200 to his campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
But 38,487 people, or approximately 13 percent of all Clinton donors, had done the same.
The "top-tier candidates" are not the only ones making headway with Internet fundraising, though.
On Nov. 5, Paul raised $4.2 million in a span of 24 hours, setting the single-day fundraising record for the Republican field.
"The Internet has exploded the world of low-dollar fundraising from average citizens," Lieberman said.
"It helps the little guy. It has certainly democratized the fundraising of political campaigning," he added.
But the ability to raise large amounts of money over the Internet does not translate to being able to win a party's nomination for the presidency.
"Ultimately the second-tier candidates are going to remain second-tier candidates because you have to raise so much money to become viable. The only real candidate that has surmounted that this year is Mike Huckabee," Klink said.
THE YOUTUBE EFFECT
On Nov. 28, CNN and YouTube hosted the Republican presidential candidates in a user-driven debate in which questions were submitted via YouTube by the general public.
The debate, which was the counterpart to the previously held CNN/YouTube debate featuring the Democratic candidates, was watched by approximately 4.5 million viewers according to Nielsen television ratings, and was the most-watched debate of this election cycle.
"Clearly the YouTube debates are a phenomenon of the Internet and its impact on political campaigns," Klink said.
But because of the format of the debate, not all believe the debates are as democratizing as they have been advertised as being.
For the debates, questions are submitted by the public, but then it is up to the moderator's discretion which questions are asked.
"(The debates) are actually attempts to put democratic window dressing on what is fundamentally an undemocratic process. You had people submitting questions but then CNN deciding what questions were asked. That is still exercising agenda control," Groeling said.
Others argue that this process is necessary to ensure that the questions remain relevant and pertinent to the upcoming election.
"The role of (CNN) is to make sure the questions are relevant and can help people make decisions. The questions asked were great examples of bringing more issues to the table," Lieberman said.
Not all of YouTube's effect on the presidential campaign has been felt through the debates, however. Through the Web site, candidates, as well as citizens, can post videos promoting, or in some cases harming, campaigns.
Through their own ouTube channels, candidates have posted videos that clarify and promote their positions, attack the positions of their opponents, showcase recent endorsements, and, in some instances, poke fun at themselves.
"It's a wonderful tool. Some of the most memorable parts of the presidential campaigns so far have been YouTube videos," Lieberman said.
For example, the Clinton campaign posted videos spoofing "The Sopranos" and former-Gov. Mike Huckabee's campaign posted videos featuring the now-famous Chuck Norris jokes.
"They humanize these candidates, and to make use of this tool, it is probably one of the most important tools out there," Lieberman added.
But, despite the benefits of the Internet, there are also negative effects that can stem from it, including the ability to produce damaging information and disseminate it to a broad audience.
"I think poorly sourced information is going to play a greater and greater role as the public can put up what they want, outside the national media's filter," Groeling said.
But according to Lieberman, the Internet also makes it easier to track who has released the negative information.
Therefore, though it provides people with the avenue to hurt a campaign, overall Lieberman said he believes the Internet has had a positive effect on American elections.
"At the end of the day we are better off for having it," he said.
© 2007 Daily Bruin via U-WIRE