The internet may well be the deciding factor of the 2004 Presidential election, rising to prominence in much the same way TV did in the 1960 campaign. Though there may be no one occurrence like the Nixon-Kennedy TV debate to credit, there will be a thousand points of influence for historians to evaluate. From news coverage to fundraising, political satire to smear campaigns, pep rallies to polling, blogs to email, the rules of Presidential campaigning have been rewritten on and by the web.
It is easy to forget that the Dean campaign got this internet party started, raising more than $6m online. And although the campaign ultimately imploded, the viral power of the web was revealed to even the most techno-phobic politico. MoveOn.org, which was closely associated with Dean's rise to the national stage, also emerged from relative obscurity to become a virtual rallying place for over two million "online activists". Feeling much like the Populist movement of the 1890s, MoveOn.org gave a voice to many who felt previously unheard, spreading the word from one friend to another rallying millions to chat, solicit, appear and ultimately, be heard.
The Republicans have not ignored the viral potential of the web. The now infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth first gained attention online using their website to attract interest and gain a semblance of legitimacy. Starting an avalanche of negative attention on John Kerry's war record, the buzz about the Swift Vets grew to a level generally reserved for car giveaways on Oprah, resulting in massive TV coverage and an instant Amazon best seller. Rebukes to this latest incarnation of smear tactics also started on the web with Salon.com and others linking Texas Republican fundraisers and friends of Bush to the Swift Vets insurgency.
Political humour also found a grand new home on the web, revealing the foibles of both candidates faster and more comically than a political cartoonist ever dreamed.
The Flash movie 'This Land is Your Land' created by Evan and Gregg Spiridelli, has been downloaded from JibJab.com a reported 25m times and shown on national and local TV reaching many millions more, making it perhaps the most viewed political parody of all time. Featuring Kerry and Bush singing at each other with jabs like "you can't say nuclear and that really scares me" and "you've got more waffles than a house of pancakes", this equal-opportunity lampooner rewrote the book on political satire.
Political database building for email also became a significant factor during this campaign. Candidate websites solicited registrations on the home page, using email address capture as the beginning of an extended dialogue. And when John Kerry used email to announce his running mate, he not only made history being the first to do so in this manner, he also gave fresh credence to the importance and desirability of being part of political databases. Though we will never know the exact number of emails being sent on behalf of both candidates, it no doubt ranges into the billions, totals that could never be matched with direct mail.
The internet has also played a dominant role as both news breaker and watchdog of other news providers as bloggers earned a seat at the information table. Political blogs are now averaging an astounding 4m page views per month, a 13-fold increase in just two years.
One of the reasons blogs have become so popular is that they have also become more credible, breaking stories sooner, challenging positions, exposing inaccuracies and generally wreaking havoc on the traditional press. For the first time, bloggers had space in the press boxes at both political conventions and were issuing stories or challenging others faster than James Earl Jones can say "this is CNN".
Historians may refer to 2004 as the first internet election and rightly so. Ignoring the fact that TV ad spending reached historic levels in much the same way consumers have learned to tune out TV ads, historians instead will look to the multi-headed marketing monster known as the internet to dissect what happened.
They will marvel at the ingenuity of the online smear campaigns like the Swift Boat Veterans that ignited an offline firestorm and made some pundits long for the simpler days of Nixon's dirty tricks. They will note with irony that while online ad spending was negligible for either candidate, the avalanche of email, the extensive reach of blogs and plethora of pro/con sites more than made up for it.
Chronicling how the web was used by both candidates to inform, misinform, fundraise and marshal troops, history will be unkind to the loser, praising the winner for being "internetic" (the online evolution of telegenic) and redefining how campaigns are to be executed in the 21st century.
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