[Air-l] democracy & culture; political flash apps

Philip N. Howard pnhoward at u.washington.edu
Wed Jul 2 10:43:29 PDT 2003

AIR Friends:
I am a big fan of describing the role of the internet in political life as a
story of democracy and culture.  For a candidate, the bottom line may be
winning.  For candidates, the bottom line may be winning, but I would
disagree with JSG if she means that the 'bottom line' for those of us
studying political culture should be candidate victories.  Stories about
politics online always involve some exciting new innovation and some
disheartening stories of ugly political tricks.  So both McCain and Bradley
campaigns were innovative in that they used the Internet to organize decent
campaigns in states where they had no paid full-time staff.  They raised big
bucks online, but only after media blitz on the possibilities of an upset
and many of those "pledges" were taken over the phone and processed through
webforms by volunteers sitting at campaign HQ.

I don't think its going out on a limb to say there are a number of
legislative campaigns, both elite lobbyist and grassroots campaigns, that
have won _because_ of the internet.  If this is out on a limb I'd hope it
can be part of JSG's tree.

It is really important to move beyond win/loss measures of the internet's
role in political culture.  Looking for internet effects the traditional
polisci way means treating a bunch of phenomena additively, such that
campaign communications strategy is one of a dozen factors (along with
charisma, financing, platform) that add up to a explain a candidate's
victory.  Will the internet be making a difference when a wired campaign
strategy (wired/not wired) provides 51% of the explained variation in
electoral outcomes (candidate win/loose)?  Even if you could create the
database for such a model, I'd bet that the role of the internet in
candidate campaigns is increasingly important yet increasingly ubiquitous,
not increasingly pronounced and distinct.  Being interested in political
culture should mean looking for the contours of complex interaction between
the variables.  As a Ventura IT guy said, they "didn't win because of the
internet, but wouldn't have won without it."  With the traditional, additive
analytical frame, this statement from the Ventura campaign would make their
case unworthy of study.

I think the internet made a difference in the 2000 Presidential election,
where difference = deep part of political culture, not wired campaign =
victory.  I think secondary candidates like McCain, Bradley and Nader got
further than expected; campaign communications were significantly more agile
than in 1996; online posturing became a crucial part of impression
management in the 48 hours after the Florida recount debacle.  Activists
dreamed up some really effective apps, including vote-swapping apps,
candidate-citizen affinity matching apps, campaign finance tracking apps and
more.  They also generated a huge volume of political humor in the form of
jokes, art, flash ads etc, which circulated well beyond activist networks.

I agree Dean's campaign is innovative and seems to have really integrated
internet-based apps into its campaign communications strategies.  But will
he or the richer campaigns be using the bots that join lists to promote and
'engage' list members?  What kind of datamining will they do online?  What
are the internal power relations like between IT consultants and other
campaign workers?

BTW i'm building a collection of political flash apps at
Do AIRers have any others I should add?  There are a dozen there to play
with, but i'd love more!
Philip N. Howard
Assistant Professor
Department of Communication
University of Washington

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