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Online Election Coverage Goes Mainstream

By Kenneth Corbin (Send Email)
Posted Nov 4, 2008


Today's election, the culmination of a two-year campaign that has generated unprecedented media attention, has lit up the Web in a way that would have been unimaginable in 2004.

In an online election frenzy never before seen, there's no denying that the Internet has shed its fringe-media status.

The proliferation of online polling and politically-themed social-media content — from the candidates' own Web sites to the ceaseless barrage of micro-rants on Twitter — have stamped this election with an unmistakable Web 2.0 imprimatur.

Consider YouTube, Google's popular video-sharing site. YouTube staked its claim in the political arena during the primaries, when it partnered with CNN to host a debate among the candidates of the two major parties. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

YouTube launched a channel to provide nonstop coverage of the nominating conventions earlier this year. Under the auspices of Google's VoteHour.org initiative, luminary CEOs such as Cisco's John Chambers, Intel's Paul Ottelini and The Trump Organization's Donald Trump have submitted 40-second video pitches calling on workers to take the time to vote this year.

Of course, simply making it to the polls isn't enough — not for the total coverage the Web is gunning for. In partnership with PBS, YouTube is asking voters to record their Election Day experiences and submit them to its Video Your Vote channel.

The idea is to create a comprehensive, unvarnished record of the voting experience in an election where doubts persist about the reliability of electronic polling machines and accusations about voter fraud continue to fly.

"Voters have documented each step of the 2008 election on YouTube and this phenomenon will culminate on November 4," Steve Grove, YouTube's head of news and politics, said in a statement. "This partnership with PBS, an organization known for offering rich perspectives, will help voters examine all aspects of voting from the registration processes, to reforms, to technology and election administration, to the actual casting of ballots."

But the phenomenon of sharing your Election Day experience doesn't end with YouTube — not by a long shot. Twitter has set up a Voter Report feed so motivated citizens can share their stories about braving the polls via real-time microblog.

Then on the social news side of the Web, Digg's U.S. Elections 2008 page is showcasing the most popular news stories about the campaign.

Digg and Twitter have both partnered with CurrentTV, a cable channel co-founded by Al Gore, for an Election Night Party. Along with streaming video from 12seconds.tv and a DJ set in the background, Current will provide a multimedia dashboard featuring election Tweets and Digg comments in what it bills as "the future of election coverage."

And if you're feeling speculative, the wagering site InTrade has become a favorite stop. Intrade lays odds on the outcomes of the great questions of the day, and invites people to purchase prediction contracts whose value rises and falls with the market speculation. As of late Monday, the market set the likelihood of an Obama victory at 90.1 percent.

Not All Fun and Games

All those interactive bells and whistles that have made the campaign a more social affair are fine and good, but this year's election seems also to have conferred a new sense of legitimacy on the Web — both as a source of information and as an influencer, for good or ill.

After all, it was the scurrilous rumors on the blogosphere that forced Sarah Palin to make a public announcement about her teenage daughter's pregnancy sooner than she'd planned.

And pundits commonly cite the Obama campaign's use of the Web — as well as the candidate's reneging on his pledge to accept public financing — with amassing a campaign war chest almost 80 percent larger than his opponent's.

The Obama machine's Web-based financing has been soliciting repeat contributions — often of very small sums — from its massive registry of supporters. McCain, by contrast, opted to accept public financing, which capped the amount of money he could raise. The disparity created by the new model of fundraising has reopened the debate over campaign finance reform.

Anyone who has watched television in the past two weeks can offer empirical evidence of the disparity in spending. McCain didn't have $4 million lying around to buy a half-hour infomercial on network TV. But the spending disparity carries over to the Web, according to the latest analysis from Nielsen Online.

When the meltdown in the financial sector intensified in late September, Obama started stepping up his online ad spending, both in display and search. Obama-branded display ads saw a 202 percent increase in impressions the week beginning Sept. 15, and a 94 percent increase the following week.

Nielsen also found that in mid-October, Obama eclipsed McCain in the number of sponsored search results for the first time in the campaign.

For politicians and pundits alike

This past Sunday on "The McLaughlin Group," the feisty and often combative TV political roundtable, host John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan to name the most reliable tracking poll — Rasmussen? Gallup? Zogby?

"Real Clear Politics," Buchanan replied. Why? Because the site aggregates the major polls, feeds them into an algorithm that computes an average, weighted by factors such as sample size and margin of error. As of this writing, Real Clear Politics had Obama leading by 7.4 points.

Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, chimed in that he was a big fan of FiveThirtyEight.com, another online poll aggregator.

Sites like these, along with political blogs, have been experiencing meteoric rises in their traffic this year, according to online metrics firm comScore. Real Clear Politics saw its visitor count surge 489 percent from September 2007 to the same month this year. HuffingtonPost.com, the most heavily trafficked political blog, saw its monthly visitor count shoot up 474 percent to 4.5 million uniques in the same period.

The comments of Buchanan and Page, hardly fresh faces on the political scene, seem to underscore the emerging reality that the sites, strategies and content that have characterized this election are rewriting the rules, and that the term "new media" might be something of a misnomer four years from now.

This article was originally published on InternetNews.com.

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