Power in 2008 campaign is at voters’ fingertips

Etan Horowitz

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Nearly a year out from Florida’s presidential primary, a handful of strangers are sitting in Marcy Haydt’s living room sipping red wine and listening to the voices booming through her computer’s speakers.

The voices belong to seven of the Democratic presidential candidates. And with every remark about troop surges, funding vetoes or suicide bombings, Haydt’s guests nod in agreement or roll their eyes in disbelief.

These “virtual town hall” guests are part of the “netroots” — an online breed of grass-roots activists who use the Internet to organize around issues and candidates.

And as the race for the White House heats up, the netroots are expected to play a significant role in the campaign.

Bolstered by the influence of blogs, social-networking sites and video-sharing sites, the average Joe and Jane have more influence on campaigns than ever before. People young and old have already begun using the Internet to organize meetings, raise money and debate issues.

“If you think back to how things used to work, the only people who had a chance to talk to the candidates were the people who happened to be in a diner in New Hampshire when the candidate wandered in,” said Adam Ruben, the political director for MoveOn.org. “Now many more people have a chance to talk to the candidate.”

MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, organized this month’s virtual town hall, which focused on Iraq. The event was billed as the first of its kind, and MoveOn’s membership picked the candidates and the questions.

The candidates’ answers were recorded separately and then broadcast on the Internet on April 10 to more than 1,000 viewing parties such as the one at Haydt’s home in Daytona Beach.

Only two of the eight people who showed up were Haydt’s friends. The rest found the party through MoveOn.org.

After the town hall, MoveOn members voted on which candidate did the best — it was Obama. Now the group is planning two more virtual town halls on health care and global warming.

Gatherings organized online around a common theme or “meetups,” were used by Howard Dean and other candidates in 2004. Since then, the amount of “user-generated content” on an ever-growing number of Web sites has exploded, forcing candidates to pay attention and offer tools that let supporters speak up.

“Traditional political discourse in our country is top down — the politician speaking down to the voter and hoping the voter responds by voting for them or giving them money,” said Andrew Rasiej, the co-founder of techPresident.com, a Web site that tracks the role of the Internet in the presidential campaign.

“But if you think about the new landscape, the voters are talking to each other,” he said. “It’s the side-to-side communication voters are doing among themselves that is palpable.”

Much of this online activism is taking place on social-networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, where users create personal profiles, become friends with other users and post their thoughts.

Candidates have responded by creating their own social-networking sites. Republican John McCain has McCainSpace, Obama has My.BarackObama.com and Democrat John Edwards has One Corps.

A key benefit to candidates is that these sites organize supporters to campaign for them. But the sites also remove the stringent controls over message that have marked past presidential campaigns.

Consider 20-year-old Chris Siercks. A few months ago he started a group on Facebook called Floridians for Mitt Romney, which now has 87 members.

On the group’s page, Siercks posts links to news articles about Romney, pictures he took of the former Massachusetts governor at a campaign stop in The Villages and debates with other users. In one of the postings, Siercks and another group member criticized Romney for announcing possible running mates because they thought it was too early and conveyed a sense of overconfidence.

“My intention with the group is not just a positive-spin propaganda group,” said Siercks, a student at Lake-Sumter Community College. “It’s a realistic, open place for supporters to give their views and give their concerns about what is going on currently, and maybe we talk about some of the things we could do to help his campaign.”

Siercks said he plans to share the online back and forth with Romney’s operatives so they can incorporate it into their strategy. But he might not have to pick up a phone or send an e-mail: Romney is a member of Siercks’ group.

The Internet has also changed the way people campaign for candidates.

In 2004, Geno Mehalik, 23, helped John Kerry by handing out fliers at a speech by Michael Moore at the University of Central Florida.

This time, Mehalik is supporting Clinton in cyberspace. He searches out news articles on Clinton and e-mails them to friends and posts them on Facebook.

He also has a link at the bottom of every e-mail that allows people to donate to Clinton. If people click on the link and donate, Mehalik is credited with the donation. So far, he hasn’t raised any money besides the $50 he donated but has set a goal of $1,000.

“It makes you feel proud that you were the one who went out there and got that money,” said Mehalik, who works in marketing for Florida Hospital.

Although it’s clear the Internet reflects enthusiasm for a particular candidate or issues and is important for organizing offline activity, Rasiej said it’s unclear whether cyberpolitics will tip the election.

Obama might have the most friends on MySpace, Rasiej said, but that doesn’t mean he will get the most votes.

Cyber Campaign 2008

The Internet is going to play a bigger role in the 2008 campaign than ever before. Here are some of the tools people use to debate issues and campaign for candidates:

YouChoose ’08

youtube.com/youchoose: A roundup of videos from the candidates on the video-sharing site YouTube. Candidates can post videos, and people can post video responses. Most are clips of speeches or TV interviews. However, starting with Mitt Romney this month, candidates will post videos in which they ask users a question and invite users to post video responses.

Eventful Politics

eventful.com/politics: Eventful is a Web site that bills itself as the “world’s largest collection of events.” It allows users to “demand” an appearance in their town.

MySpace Impact

impact.myspace.com: A roundup of the official MySpace profiles of the presidential candidates. Users can add the candidates as their friends, post comments on candidates’ pages, watch videos and donate online.

Etan Horowitz

The Orlando Sentinel