2008 Shaping Up to Be Election 2.0

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 11-10-2007

2008 Shaping Up to Be Election 2.0

Not a single primary has been held—much less a vote cast—but 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 world—defining 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 began—10 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.

Online trailblazer

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."

None do.

All the 2008 candidates love technology—just 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.

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"The Silicon Valley is looking for a candidate who really gets it—someone who understands how all the public policy pieces fit together," said Google spokesperson Adam Kovacevich. Kovacevich added that Google also uses the visits to "educate the candidates now [on technology issues] and push them to develop a playbook."

The candidates all agree that technology will be critical in solving issues such as rising health care costs and the energy crisis, creating high-paying high-tech jobs along the way. Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the country needs more and faster broadband to remain globally competitive.

There's also no disagreement that America needs a large reinvestment in science, technology, engineering and math education. All of the candidates endorse more H-1B visas for technology companies, and they all drink green ethanol for breakfast—at least figuratively (and at least in Iowa).

Sharp differences

The candidates are offering numerous technology plans. Clinton has a nine-point plan that includes a $50 billion strategic energy fund and broadband deployment tax initiatives. Romney wants to implement a "mandatory biometrically enabled, tamper-proof documentation and employment verification system" as part of his immigration plan.

Edwards' detailed six-point plan promises to "confront the competitive challenges of the new century." Obama would invest $10 billion over five years to build "standards-based electronic health information systems."

To make it all happen, though, there are sharp differences among the candidates' approaches to technology policy. The Republicans put their faith in free markets and slashing taxes and government regulations.

"I'm all for the government encouraging competition, but I've found over time that less government involvement is better," McCain said at a technology conference in May. "Unless there is a clear-cut, unequivocal restraint of competition, the government should stay out of it. These things will sort themselves out."

Rudy Giuliani recently said at the Northern Virginia Technology Council, "Government needs to get out of the way of private enterprise."

Likewise, Romney said in January, "The guy on the shoulders, that's your government. And if government's too big, it slows down the inventors and the entrepreneurs."

Since Democrats took control of Congress in January, though, a different approach is pacing the agenda and offering voters an alternative choice: increased market regulations, tax incentives instead of cuts, and heightened priority of individual privacy, copyright and telecom laws.

Ten months after coming to power, the Democrats are seeking network neutrality laws, patent reform favored by most tech companies and a large taxpayer investment in technology.

The Democratic presidential candidates—most notably, Clinton, Obama and Edwards—promise more of the same if elected. Clinton and Obama are co-sponsors of legislation in the U.S. Senate that would impose network neutrality mandates on the country's broadband providers. All of their competitors for the Democratic nomination endorse the bill.

"I've become an original cosponsor of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which would prevent Internet service providers from blocking, degrading or giving a lower-priority service on their networks," Clinton said in January.

Obama weighed in with an attack on the "big telephone and cable companies" that want to "change the Internet as we know it. Those of us who can't pony up the cash for these high-speed connections will be relegated to the slow lanes ... Allowing the Bells and cable companies to act as gatekeepers with control over Internet access would make the Internet like cable," he said last year.

Republicans counter that network neutrality laws would amount to excessive and unnecessary regulation of the Internet. McCain believes the market will solve the issue. If a broadband provider discriminates in the treatment of Internet traffic, McCain contends, the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to deal with it.

"When you control the pipe, you should be able to get profit from your investment," McCain recently said, defending the proposals of telecoms such as AT&T and Verizon to charge large content providers extra fees based on bandwidth usage. Paul is also on the record against the need for any network neutrality laws. Giuliani and Romney have so far avoided the subject.

While network neutrality is, at best, a narrow issue in a presidential race, Republicans and Democrats also disagree over the broader policy approach to competitiveness and innovation. Democrats favor public-private partnerships to promote broadband and a host of other technology initiatives. Republicans salute the goal, but feel the government's best role is to stay out of the way.

As the races unfold during the next 12 months, technology policy will likely manifest itself not as separate issues, but as part of the overall fabric of economic realities facing American voters. As Google's Kovacevich recently said, "We want to make sure the next president is a 'tech president'—that they understand how innovation happens and have some concrete ideas about how to keep the tech economy growing."