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Time was, when a feller ran for office, the only technology he needed was one of those fancy poster-printing contraptions and a mule. Those days are gone, friends, and these days any politician worth his or her salt is going to require the assistance of code, software, and hardware. So how do the 2008 presidential candidates stack up in the tech department?
McCain famously announced not too long ago that he was just “learning to get online” to use “a Google,” prompting w00ts of derision. But regardless of his personal tech savvy, he knew enough, in 2000, to hire Campaign Solutions, an Internet consulting company that has since put online fund-raising on the map with its record-breaking results on McCain’s behalf. But what’s he been up to lately?
The guy some people call Mac launched a social networking site called McCainSpace as part of his larger website, JohnMcCain .com. The first version was called “virtually impossible to use” by Adam Ostrow, a tech blogger quoted in the New York Times. But in August, Ostrow followed up with an article (on mashable .com) praising the relaunched site as “extremely easy to use.” McCainSpace features video updates from the candidate as well as discussion forums, virtual groups such as Hillary Supporters for McCain (62 members and counting, at press time), and blogs. It is, indeed, easy to use, but it remains to be seen whether it will attract an active audience.
Obama’s been busy on the tech front, too, flagrantly Blackberrying in front of Politico reporters and using videoconference hookups to stay in touch with the fam when he’s on the campaign trail. But the guy himself is one thing; whom he hires and how he networks are what counts. Obama got his social networking site up first, and it’s worth noting that it was developed by Chris Hughes, a Facebook founder. Is it also worth noting, then, that while Obama’s my.BarackObama.com has the Facebook pedigree, the McCain social networking site’s very name invokes the implied class differences between Facebook and MySpace users? Maybe not, unless we’re overthinking things.
That said, the Obama campaign has been much more active online than McCain’s has. Rather than spearheading all efforts themselves (and despite a much bigger online spending budget), the Obama camp focuses “on building online tools to empower Obama supporters to take the campaign into their own hands,” Hughes says. “Using the tools on My.BarackObama and other networks like Facebook and MySpace, supporters organize events in their communities, join local groups, and do traditional work, like phone banking and fund-raising.” The central Obama site does its part, though: Phone banks are coordinated via email; text messages remind supporters of their local polling places; a networking strategy matches up random donors (of as little as $25), so they can exchange notes about why they donated and, presumably, continue a conversation about the campaign.
TechPresident.com tracks each candidate’s online presence—not just how each uses the Net himself, but who’s picking up what, blogwise. For example, items posted on the site noted when Twitter was used during protests around the Republican National Convention, chased down the veracity of the Anne Kilkenny/Sarah Palin email, and timed the “epic fail” of a promised text from Biden.
There are some online tools both campaigns use: Facebook groups (McCain: 318,573 supporters; Obama: 1,748,234, at press time), YouTube videos (in the wake of any out-of-context quote that’s aired or published, both sides’ supporters flock to the video site to get the fuller picture), and one iPhone app each: the Obama Inauguration Countdown and the McCain Inauguration Countdown, 99 cents each in the App Store.
In the end, how fast each guy is at thumb-typing or whether he’s capable of editing his own Wikipedia entry doesn’t determine his ability to lead the nation. But whether he can inspire his supporters to stump for him in cyberspace—that may well make quite a difference.