Also Read: Election 2008: The Internet Campaign
Not a single primary has been heldmuch less a vote castbut the 2008 race for the White House is shaping up as the country's first national election in which technology will capture a significant share of the public discourse.
More interestingly, the industry's emerging national voice and clout could tip the outcome. That outcome will influence the direction of the U.S. tech economy in the competitive global market that floats technology's long-tailed boat.
The party that captures the presidency in 2008 will largely shape the laws, rules and regulations that govern the U.S. digital worlddefining issues that increasingly divide Democrats and Republicans. Of course, the same was true in the most recent presidential campaign, between George W. Bush and John Kerry, but technology as an issue was largely ignored at that point by candidates and voters alike.
While no one expects technology issues to overshadow war and peace in 2008, candidates of all stripes this time around are embracing technology and the companies and people who develop, make, market, sell and use it.
Tech's 'best friend'
Technology solutions that appeal to everyone underpin the candidates' promises and talking points. Whether Republican or Democrat, left or right, conservative or liberal, the candidates promise the equivalent of an iPhone in every pocket. Elect me, they say, and I'll be tech's best friend.
We know all this because the campaigns hit the Internet the day the 2007-2008 election cycle began10 months ago and almost two years before the Nov. 4, 2008, Election Day.
A host of Web 2.0 tools were deployed on candidates' sites, networks were built, bloggers were fed, and millions were spent organizing the faithful to turn out potential voters. And then there was the tagging, tagging and, for good measure, more tagging.
Hillary Clinton officially launched her campaign with an online videocast. She regularly updates the video feed, seemingly speaking to her supporters on a daily basis. Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney was the first Republican with a Facebook profile; John Edwards courts the avatars in Second Life; John McCain rails on his site against Internet taxes; and Barack Obama got the drop on everyone with text messaging.
Indeed, the candidates' online presence is being closely watched and measured.
Web sites such as TechPresident.com take the candidates' daily Internet pulse with detailed data, including who's leading in site traffic, blog mentions, MySpace friends, Facebook supporters, YouTube viewership and Technorati tracks.
Romney's early adopter move, by the way, paid off with almost 20,000 (and counting) Facebook supporters. The leading Republican on Facebook, though, is renegade Ron Paul, with 32,000 supporters. That said, the Democrats blow away those numbers. Obama's 150,000 Facebook supporters gives him an almost 3-to-1 edge over Clinton, whose own numbers overwhelm Paul's.
Yet, the largest Facebook political group is Stop Hillary Clinton, with 450,000 members. Obama is also the choice at MySpace. Clinton, though, racks up huge numbers at YouTube.
Paul's official campaign site commands the largest share of Web traffic.
Howard Dean was the first 2004 candidate to catch the lightning-in-a-bottle potential of social networking, political style. Launching an online insurgent campaign four years ago, the formerly obscure Vermont governor stunned Kerry and the Democratic Party establishment by raking in a then-record $20 million in online contributions and organizing millions of potential activists for his cause.
Although his campaign stumbled early and badly (a point repeatedly asserted by current candidates riding low in the polls), Dean emerged as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and he remains as committed as ever to the rising political punch of Internet citizen democracy, raw as it may be.
Republicans, on the other hand, are widely considered to have missed the Internet boat float. As the conservative Washington Times wrote in an Oct. 25 editorial: "Over the past five years, liberals clearly jumped out to an early lead in blog politics, as technology poured gas on the flames of their discontent, creating an explosion of blogosphere activity."
Politicians weren't the only ones noticing the phenomena. Just months after the 2004 election ended, media mogul Rupert Murdoch snatched a site named MySpace for a then breathtaking $583 million. Google grabbed YouTube for $1.65 billion in a stock-for-stock transaction, and Microsoft recently took a 1.6 percent stake in Facebook for $240 million.
"Candidates are much more aware of technology these days," said Lee Rainie, the founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "It's now at the center of their campaigns in a way it has never been before. This wave of online campaigning is driving voters into either camp."
It is, however, early. And who can say how many Facebook profiles or MySpace buddies will actually translate into votes? They did for Dean, and he still fell well short.
What is undeniable, though, is that technology has contributed $2 trillion to the economy during the last decade. As Betsy Mullins, vice president of government and political affairs at TechNet, a political organization of tech CEOs, noted, "The candidate ignores that at his or her own peril."
All the 2008 candidates love technologyjust ask them. Democrats Clinton, Edwards, Bill Richardson and Mike Gravel have all traveled to Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters to be videotaped on the issues. Republicans McCain and Paul have also made the trip.