Presidential candidates had it easy in the pre-Internet age. Campaigns considered in the increasingly distant past didn’t have to worry about Internet fundraising, emailing supporters, or trying to stay up to date and compete with their opponents online. They didn’t even have to create a website, a move that every candidate must now do in order to win an election -- unless you’re Alvin Greene running for a nomination in a South Carolina U.S. Senate campaign.
In today’s politics, however, campaigns have to constantly be on their toes as information about candidates is available to essentially every voter at any time and at any place.
While it’s a blessing for many candidates hoping to gain name recognition or keep in touch with supporters, it can also be a curse. Candidates can’t escape the inventions of the Internet age like camera phones and second-by-second updates from websites like Facebook and Twitter. One slip-up and a campaign can be over before it begins.
President Barack Obama probably knows that all too well after a remark he made in 2008 regarding small town Pennsylvanians who “cling” to guns and religion. The comment, made at a fundraising event in San Francisco during his presidential campaign, helped opponents paint then-candidate Obama as an elitist and forced him to go on the defensive to try and explain the remark.
While the remark didn’t derail Obama’s run for the presidency, it was actually a post by an Internet blogger that allowed his remarks to spread like wild fire.
Sometimes a candidate doesn’t even need to make a mistake to be tarnished over the web. Unsubstantiated blog posts, doctored videos, and photo-shopped pictures can make a candidate appear foolish even when they have done nothing wrong.
Campaign staffs before the boom of the Internet should really consider themselves lucky as they didn’t have to face many of the traps of today’s political atmosphere.
One can only imagine how quickly Bill Clinton’s campaign could have spiraled out of control had blogs existed as significantly as they do today back in 1992 or how quickly Ronald Reagan’s staff would have had to respond to the Iran-Contra scandal had Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones apps existed in 1986.
Of course, these campaigns would have undoubtedly used the web to their advantage as well. It would be fascinating to see how James Carville, Clinton’s campaign manager in 1992, would have used the Internet. I can only imagine an “It’s the Economy, Stupid” website. It would have been equally intriguing to have seen how someone like Lee Atwater, presidential campaign advisor for both Presidents Reagan and Bush, would have used the web to shore up support.
It was actually Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 that is widely credited for revolutionizing Internet fundraising as they were able to shatter the Democratic Party’s previous money raising record by picking up small donors via the web. While that campaign was ultimately unsuccessful, the model was somewhat replicated by Obama in his victory in 2008.
Fortunately, the Internet has not turned into the ultimate arena for presidential politics. If it had, candidates would simply flop every penny into Internet advertising and fundraising and wait to reap the rewards.
Most politicians still have to go through the media filter that includes newspapers, magazines, the 24-hour news networks, and the Sunday morning talk shows like Face the Nation and Meet the Press.
We’ll have to wait and see who wins the presidency in November 2012, but expect the candidates to take Internet campaigning to a whole new level.