Digital politics - engaging voters online

The 2008 Presidential election's brought a new battleground to the forefront of the political arena - online. The online activities of both Barack Obama and John McCain, and their UK counterparts, highlights theincreasing reach and influence of online channels and seems to be setting a trend for elections to come.

Obama vs. McCain

The online arena's clearly valued by these political heavyweights as a channel to voters. Obama's widely considered as the leading light when it comes to online campaigning. His campaign is clearly very well thought through, considering his prime target audience, their sphere of influence and key points of interaction.

He isn't just playing lip-service to the digital channels, he's clearly trying to talk to the influencers. By offering �Obama 08' t-shirts for sale online, and with a presence on no less than 17 social media sites including Facebook (on which he has over 2.1 million fans) and MySpace, he's really giving people a means to spread his word.

However, McCain hasn't missed the boat here and also has a very slick online presence with a media rich website and blog. He also has a substantial social media presence which includes Facebook (over half a million fans), and MySpace. Both candidates have also spent heavily on Google Adwords campaigns.

But how will online actually affect the election, particularly Obama's model of online advocacy? The answer's that there's no definitive answer. But a good way to start is to look at online habits in states that may prove to be key in the election results.

Key battleground states

According to the BBC, the key battleground states in the 2008 election with the most Electoral College Votes are Florida (27), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), North Carolina (15) and Virginia (13).

The last population survey by the US Census BureauOpens in new window in October 2007 found that more than 69% of households in Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio have some sort of access to the internet, compared with 67% in North Carolina and 75% in Virginia.

So if you take these numbers (which are bound to have increased since last year), candidates will be able to use online channels to reach 2/3 to 3/4 of the population in these key states. However, the political arena is like any other marketing arena - for online campaigns to be at their most effective, they must be tied into other multi-channel activity.

Social media

Social media's not really affected the final vote in an election yet, but this may not continue to be the case. To gauge the impact of social media it's necessary to dig a little deeper. According to Silicon Alley Insider, McCain's deputy e-campaign manager Mark Soohoo suggested that McCain didn't need Facebook as its users weren't his voters. A sweeping generalisation? Maybe not when you consider a survey found that 36% of Democrats have social network profiles, compared to 28% of Independents and 21% of Republicans. In addition, Obama had a far superior social media fan base over Hillary Clinton in the Primaries but only won narrowly.

However, when you consider that 1 in 4 Americans are on MySpace and the fastest growing demographic of Facebook users is the over 25s, the potential is there for all to see.

Let's use Facebook membership in Florida as an example. This shows the potential for social media to make the move from simply garnering support to affecting the vote in the future. See table below for details of the 3 largest cities in Florida:

CityPopulationFacebook network membership
Jacksonville 805,000+ 111,000+
Miami 409,000+ 288,000+
Tampa 382,000+ 222,000+

Obviously this isn't an accurate measure for comparison, given that these networks will contain members from the cities' surrounding areas. But it does show the potential for social media as more users are attracted and the current user-base gets older.

UK politics online

There's obviously not an upcoming election in the UK so the online campaigning's not as active. Nonetheless, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are pretty well advanced in the online arena withmedia rich websites and social media presence. The Conservatives have even taken the time to garner a presence on Bebo. This is an interesting move that's clearly designed to interact with future voters considering the largely teenage user-base.

Perhaps there's a lot to be learnt from the American campaign, and it may be that we see some of this immersive and directed approach for our next general election. However, is the British nation really ready for the same level of interactive proximity with our political candidates? There's not the same euphoric passion for politics in the UK as in the US, so the answer is probably not. You can't imagine many people in this country wearing a t-shirt bearing Gordon Brown's name, and it remains to be seen if they'll become an advocate through social media.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the US Presidential Election of 2008 is setting a trend for all major elections to come. Social media and online in general is now a key channel for campaigning and garnering support and is recognised as such by the major parties and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the fact that the support gained through social media doesn't seem to have a direct affect on the outcome of the votes yet, it has the potential to become a key factor in how future elections are won and lost. One thing is for sure, politics is really entering the multi-channel marketing environment.

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