The Wired Bunch: Ranking the E-Candidates
by Michael Baumann
When Howard Dean garnered national headlines with his internet-based grass-roots campaign leading up to the 2004 election, it was a sign that the electoral landscape was beginning to change from one $500-a-plate fundraising dinner after another to a set of viral videos and Facebook groups.
While politicians once were removed from the unwashed masses, waving from the back of moving trains along the campaign trail, the internet has made the electoral process more intimate. Now, a few clicks can tell you that Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama, and Mike Huckabee share a love for The Godfather films as well as designs on the presidency.
Here, we rate the 13 remaining major party candidates on how well they’re using the web to campaign and how each of them might affect the internet from the White House.
Ranking the Campaigns
Important factors in grading the candidates’ online campaign efforts included the overall appeal and functionality of their websites, as well as the level of support evident on social networking and other Web 2.0 sites (specifically Facebook and YouTube). The use of online multimedia is a plus, as are links to related sites. Unique or particularly effective uses of the internet, such as Mike Gravel’s alternative debates or Ron Paul’s record online fundraising haul, earn bonus points.
Ranking the Platforms
The three most prominent web-related issues the next president will face are Net Neutrality, telecom immunity, and the proliferation of high-speed internet access. Net Neutrality is a nearly 2-year-old debate on whether ISPs should be allowed to prioritize bandwidth so that some sites run faster than others. The Democratic candidates are generally in favor of Net Neutrality, while all the Republicans except for Mike Huckabee are opposed or uncommitted on the issue.
Telecom immunity refers to a recent defense appropriations bill that would, if passed, clear telecommunications companies from all liability to allow the government to use wiretaps and access search records without a warrant. Senators Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., are attempting to filibuster the bill, if not defeat it outright.
In mid-December, 14 senators, including presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton along with Dodd and Joe Biden, D-Del. (who dropped out after poor showings at the Iowa caucus Jan. 3), sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging him to take action against the bill.
Expanding high-speed internet access is a less controversial issue, but there are some rural areas of the country where high-speed cable or DSL connections are not available. Some candidates, most notably Clinton, have made a push to make internet connections faster and more widespread.
Candidates are graded on their acknowledgment of and commitment to these issues and whether their stances are likely to foster the growth and advancement of internet technology.
Former Sen. Mike Gravel, D-Alaska
Notable features: Staff blog, video, discussion forums, links to external sites
Facebook: 7,074 supporters
YouTube: 84 videos, 3,800 subscribers
The former Alaska senator’s campaign has been one of the more low-profile undertakings during this run for the White House, and his website closely resembles his campaign overall—functional, but somewhat low-budget. Gravel’s homepage links to external sites on MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube; it contains embedded video and a map of the states where he is on the primary ballot. Something of a political outsider, Gravel has found himself left out of recent debates. He has responded by holding alternative debates and streaming the video over the internet.
Gravel is pro-Net Neutrality, including the issue on his list of official positions. On telecom immunity, Gravel has long been a proponent of personal privacy, and campaign staff members have said he believes that it extends to the internet.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio
Notable features: Newsroom, Weekly Report video, external links, staff blog
Facebook: 19,919 supporters
YouTube: 156 videos, 5,327 subscribers
The website emphasizes Kucinich’s wife, Elizabeth, as a campaigning force. She has her own section of the site and videos of her appearances and speeches. Kucinich showcases his spouse more than any other candidate in his online campaign, including Clinton and Edwards. The homepage design is somewhat clumsy, and the site does not link to any other sites except YouTube, while the staff blog is buried at the bottom of the page near “Terms of service.”
Despite having a flawed online campaign, Kucinich is the most tech-friendly of the candidates on issues alone. Kucinich voted for the failed Markey Amendment in Congress in 2006, which would have protected Net Neutrality. His history of being pro-civil liberties and against the USA PATRIOT Act and wiretaps would suggest that he would oppose telecom immunity as well.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.*
Notable features: Blog, Newsroom, Multimedia Center, Action Center, Spanish-language site
Facebook: 7,726 supporters
YouTube: 231 videos, 1,717 supporters
Richardson’s site layout is user-friendly, sleek, and appealing to the eye. The site is heavier on images and graphics than many others, making it more fun to navigate than those of his competitors. It is easily the most impressive of the second-tier Democratic candidates. One area where Richardson stands out is the Action Center, a user-friendly page that walks supporters through 14 different ways to help the campaign, most of them having nothing to do with donating money.
The former Tufts University pitcher is also the only candidate to prominently display the Spanish-language version of his site, a nod to his Hispanic background.
Richardson is on the record as being pro-Net Neutrality, but he says relatively little on the internet either on his website or on the campaign trail, while other Democratic candidates are touting their Net Neutrality stances, making noise about telecom immunity, or both.
Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
Notable features: Blog, state-by-state site, embedded video
Facebook: 27,076 supporters
YouTube: 329 videos, 4,845 subscribers
Edwards’ site is solid but unspectacular. He is the only candidate to advertise a link to a podcast, and the homepage links to his pages on YouTube and Facebook. Edwards is touting a create-your-own-ad contest, which shows that his campaign recognizes the power of viral videos. The site also has state-by-state pages for the early primary states and offers text message updates via cell phone.
At a campaign stop at Howard University, Edwards responded to an unrelated question with a statement in support of Net Neutrality and open source/grass-roots media; however, he is not making it a focus of his campaign the way Kucinich and Gravel have. Edwards is also silent on the issue of telecom immunity.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Notable features: Links, blog, “5 Things You Can Do,” HillaryHub.com
Facebook: 55,577 supporters
YouTube: 177 videos, 7,425 subscribers
Clinton’s website is well-designed, informative, and easy to navigate. The separate site HillaryHub.com (accessible from the homepage) serves as an information center for recent news from the campaign. Clinton’s “5 Things You Can Do” page is a volunteer recruiting site similar to Richardson’s Action Center.
Clinton supports a plan for increasing the nation’s broadband connectivity similar to the one espoused by Joe Biden before his withdrawal. She also proposes to allow for more open access (OA) to scientific research online by sharing academic material. Clinton is also on the record as being pro-Net Neutrality and anti-telecom immunity since she signed the letter to Harry Reid denouncing the new defense bill. However, Clinton has accepted campaign contributions from major telecom corporations including AT&T, one of the leaders in the fight against Net Neutrality. Clinton hasn’t made much noise on the campaign trail on these issues, sticking to the war and healthcare as the cornerstones of her platform.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Notable features: News, videos, state-by-state breakdown, speech transcripts
Facebook: 174,283 supporters
YouTube: 380 videos, 14,259 supporters
Obama’s site is by far the best-designed, most impressive-looking, and most informative of all the candidate websites. The most unique features are the campaign breakdowns for all 50 states not just early primary states, which is nice if your state’s primary is on Super Tuesday or later. Multimedia comes on the Barack TV page with videos sorted by issues and location (so you know where to go for information, for instance, on gun control in Nevada). The homepage contains no links to external sites, but the site itself stands head and shoulders above the websites of other Democratic candidates.
Obama, like all of the Democrats in the race, supports Net Neutrality. He also signed the letter to Harry Reid urging action against telecom immunity, and he is a proponent of using government funds and influence to increase the availability and quality of broadband access nationwide. On technology issues, he falls in line with Clinton, though he lacks her well-publicized donations from the Baby Bells.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass.
Notable features: Mitt TV video player, blogroll, policy-briefing updates
Facebook: 23,309 supporters
YouTube: 557 videos, 3,631 supporters
The site opens with media player and multiple photo albums, making it appealing to look at from the start. One area where the former Massachusetts governor gains a big advantage is in blogging. The homepage contains blogs by Romney, his wife, and their five sons (though Mitt himself hasn’t updated since September), along with an impressive blogroll. A former entrepreneur, Romney had made sure his site contains a balance between Web 2.0 content and a conservative, businesslike appearance. The sheer number of TV ads he has produced gives him plenty of content for online video, as evidenced by his 557 videos on YouTube.
Romney hasn’t taken a stand on Net Neutrality, though his business background could lean to his opposing it. On the other hand, two of the movement’s biggest supporters, Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Ed Markey, are Massachusetts Democrats, and Romney worked well across party lines during his term as governor. Romney is essentially an unknown quantity on the internet.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, R-N.Y.
Notable features: Extensive video, blogroll, links to external sites
Facebook: 14,590 supporters
YouTube: 356 videos, 3,007 subscribers
Despite the extensive use of embedded video and linking, Giuliani’s site contains next to no emphasis on news and is not particularly informative. The campaign blog contains mostly video links but little about what’s actually going on. All of the emphasis is on asking for volunteer help and monetary donations, which is somewhat off-putting.
Giuliani is noncommittal on Net Neutrality, like many of his Republican rivals. Giuliani has also taken no public stand on telecom immunity, but he is by far the most hawkish of the front-runners; he is more likely than most
to support it. Giuliani’s homeland security focus and emphasis on foreign policy could mean that technology issues get ignored.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Notable features: Polls, endorsement links, blog, video, tax petition
Facebook: 16,513 supporters
YouTube: 124 videos, 2,007 subscribers
The homepage is rather static, but it’s full of information. More emphasis is given to public opinion polls on McCain’s site than any other, and he also showcases his endorsements from various political and news figures. The site design is sleek and easy to navigate. Apart from Obama, McCain has the most impressive-looking site.
McCain is the highest-profile candidate to come out openly in opposition to Net Neutrality; in December, he fought off rumors that he had been doing favors for a telecom lobbyist in the Senate Commerce Committee. These allegations, if true, do not bode well for fans of Net Neutrality or the telecom immunity filibuster.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn.
Notable features: FDTV video, news, links, widgets
Facebook: 17,684 supporters
YouTube: 51 videos, 1,168 subscribers
The homepage looks busy, but the video player dominates the page. The site is sparse apart from links to news items. One innovative aspect is the Downloads page, which includes buddy icons, widgets, and web banners. However, his campaign doesn’t seem to be doing much online apart from the widgets; for instance, his 51 YouTube videos number less than one-tenth as many as leader Romney’s.
Thompson is uncommitted on Net Neutrality and telecom immunity. Where Thompson falls depends on whether he falls more in the limited government camp (which would oppose regulation) or the free enterprise camp (which would support Net Neutrality for its egalitarian effect). In any event, Thompson’s lack of any position on these issues is par for the course among Republicans.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.
Notable features: Blog, Truth Squad page, links
Facebook: 23,890 supporters
YouTube: 151 videos, 3,196 subscribers
At first blush, Huckabee’s page is low on content and childish in design, but further investigation reveals that plenty of work goes into maintenance to keep it up-to-date. While there are virtually no videos and no media player on the site, Huckabee’s staff updates the campaign blog far more often than most others do, and nearly every entry comes with embedded video. The unique part of Huckabee’s site is the Truth Squad page, where the campaign sets out to refute the many negative statements that have been coming Huckabee’s way since he jumped into the first tier of candidates.
Huckabee is the only Republican to speak out in favor of Net Neutrality, a position that has made him unpopular among some conservatives, but it sets him apart from Republican competitors who seem to avoid technology issues in their campaigns. Huckabee has not taken a stand on telecom immunity.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas
Notable features: Widgets, videos, straw poll results, links
Facebook: 60,665 supporters
YouTube: 86 videos, 42,732 subscribers
Paul has made his name this season by hauling in $4.3 million in a single day of online fundraising last November, and his grass-roots style extends to all aspects of his online campaign. He boasts more supporters on Facebook than anyone except Barack Obama, with more than twice as many as his nearest Republican opponent, Mike Huckabee. More people subscribe to Paul’s YouTube channel than any other by a 3-1 margin. The website is busy, but it’s full of information, including how to register for primaries and a fundraising counter, a feature that no other campaign site has and a nod to Paul’s reliance on online fundraising.
Paul voted against the most important piece of Net Neutrality legislation, the Markey Amendment, in 2006 when it came up in the House of Representatives because it represented unnecessary government interference in the free market, according to his libertarian leanings. However, those same libertarian views would make him likely to oppose wiretapping telecom immunity.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.*
Notable features: Extensive video and photo galleries, links
Facebook: 1,464 supporters
YouTube: 21 videos, 883 subscribers
Hunter’s site may be busy, but it still manages to be informative. The extremely low profile of Hunter’s campaign might prevent him from having a site as flashy as McCain’s or Obama’s, but there is still plenty there in terms of embedded video and photo galleries. Even so, his small campaign doesn’t have a lot to offer in online innovation. Hunter’s site serves its purpose because it keeps the user up-to-date on Hunter’s campaign and stances on various issues. But it doesn’t generate interest, and he comes in last by a large margin in number of Facebook supporters and YouTube videos and subscribers. Hunter doesn’t even have a picture up on his Facebook page.
Hunter, along with Ron Paul, voted against the Markey Amendment in 2006. His hawkish and neoconservative views would also suggest that he might vote for telecom immunity in Congress or support it as president, though he hasn’t said anything on that issue so far.