Minor Quibbles with an Otherwise Excellent Online Politics Overview

[Update: Mike Cornfield writes in to note that an expanded version of his and Lee Rainie’s article, complete with more predictions for the future, is available online at the Pew Research Center.]

Ah, the good old days, back in the late ’90s, when the internet was going to transform politics, bring power to the people, lay low the mighty, cure static cling and otherwise spread goodness and light over the land. Writing in Sunday’s Post Outlook section, Mike Cornfield and Lee Rainie, two Very Smart Guys, talk about what we’ve learned from a decade of actually using email and the web for political communications. The conclusion wraps it up well:

Someday, the iconic Internet president may emerge, dominating the medium like FDR on the radio and JFK and Ronald Reagan on television. But thus far, the most compelling narrative about the Internet and politics is not about candidates’ skill with new media. Rather, it centers on activists’ use of e-mail and Web sites; small donors’ contributions online; bloggers’ passion to debate issues; and amateur videographers’ search for “gotcha” moments.

Along the way, they take a skeptical look at some of the much-hyped claims about online politics, including that it has transformed fundraising, advertising and organizing, that it both “balkanizes” politics and brings new voters into the political process, and that YouTube is the new killer political application.

While I generally think their conclusions are solid, I’d argued that the article misses the point in a couple of places (though I may be asking for more nuance than a single 1000-word column can provide). For instance, when looking at the internet as a persuasive tool, they say that “e-mail is not close to challenging direct mail and phone calls as ways to reach voters: A Pew Research Center survey last month found that 38 percent of registered voters had received phone calls about the midterm campaigns, while only 15 percent had received e-mail.”

Well, of course — robocalls are an accepted political marketing tool, but very few people are spamming voters with unsolicited emails. The 15 percent that received emails almost certainly ASKED to get those messages from candidates and campaigns, whereas the 38 percent who’d been robocalled or phone-banked almost certainly hadn’t. Email isn’t a good way to reach the uncommitted, but it’s a terrific way to stay in touch with people who are already supporters — and who are themselves disproportionately likely to be both politically active and opinion leaders among their peers. Perhaps a more interesting thing to measure than the raw number of messages received would be the relative effectiveness of unsolicited phone calls and opt-in emails in influencing and motivating voters.

I have a similar quibble with the article’s section on fundraising, in which the authors note that less than 5% of the money raised for the 2006 election will come from online sources. No doubt true — the real money arrives in large chunks at fundraisers and through networks of wealthy supporters. But, as Cornfield and Rainie touch on in their conclusion, online fundraising brings in millions of small donors who’d previously been excluded from the political process. And, once someone has donated to a campaign, they’re wedded to it — they’re on an email list, of course, but more than that, they’re invested emotionally as well as financially. I’d argue that once people have donated, they’re more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer and much more likely to encourage friends to do the same. Their money is important, but their sense of involvement in the campaign is a significant part of the REAL value of online donations.

Finally, looking at online video, the authors note that “it is also likely that the greatest impact of YouTube material will have come through its amplification by the parties and mainstream media.” Yep, I’d agree, and it’s the same as with blogs: relatively few people read blogs, but those that do are disproportionately likely to be opinion leaders — or journalists. A blog with a few thousand readers can still influence the news read and seen by millions, if the author can break a story or keep one alive that’s otherwise being ignored. With online video, many more people read about the George Allen “macaca” moment than actually saw it online, but it was the fact that it was online that let the critical nucleus see it in the first place. The internet isn’t really a mass communications medium in the way that television is — it’s a series of niches. For now at least, online video is online video, not tv.

Overall, though, these are relatively minor quibbles with an article that does a good job of putting the political internet in perspective. Online advocacy is a useful thing — if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be writing this website. But there’s a reason that the vast majority of political money spent in 2006 will be spent on television advertising — it’s the mass persuasion tool par excellence. The internet is often best as a one-to-one-to-one-to-one persuasive tool, an extended conversation, and smart campaigns will use its strengths appropriately. It’s the mix of methods that matters.


Written by
Colin Delany
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