Election 2008: Measuring the Power of "Netroots"

Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry created techpresident.com to answer an important question this election season: Do Facebook friends equal votes?

by John B. Carnett

John B. Carnett

During the last presidential election, Andrew Rasiej was busy advising Howard Dean on his campaign´s use of technology. Micah Sifry was a journalist covering the intersection of politics and the Internet for The Nation. This time around, the two are running the first-ever Web site that tracks how the candidates are using-and just as often, failing to use-technology to bolster their campaigns.

The site features interactive charts that monitor the popularity of candidates on social-networking sites like MySpace and Facebook and tallies how often their names are mentioned elsewhere online, while a bipartisan team of bloggers provides daily commentary. Rasiej and Sifry talked to us about how the Internet is changing politics and if Barack Obama´s 190,000 MySpace friends are really going to make a difference on Super Tuesday.

Q: We heard a lot about how important the Web was in the 2004 election. How have things changed since then?

Rasiej: There are far more tools available now. The voters themselves are creating and distributing content. It´s more than just blogging, which was the primary force in the Dean campaign.

Sifry: An ordinary person can be politically active and influential in more ways. â€Friending†a candidate on MySpace or Facebook, for instance, can have as much meaning as sticking a bumper sticker on your car. But voters can go further. They can demand that their candidates come to their town using Eventful, an online events planner. Or they can take a video camera out and capture a candidate in some real-live human interaction that sheds more light on whether that candidate is fit to be president. That´s the kind of content that spreads, because it´s interesting. And it makes this a very different election.

Q: Barack Obama and Ron Paul seem to be the most popular kids in cyberspace, though they´re not the front-runners in the polls.

Rasiej: Being online doesn´t guarantee being front-runner. But online enthusiasm for a particular candidate produces assets that can be used by campaigns for political purposes: The by-product of online action is money. The Obama and Paul campaigns have built robust online communities, and they´re mining them [for money]. It remains to be seen to what degree they can be mined to create actual votes at the polls.

Sifry: I´d also say that the fact that they have this very wide and diverse base online will enable them to stay in the race longer than they otherwise might have. Ron Paul clearly has demonstrated that online enthusiasm can be converted into real support, whether it´s money or boots on the ground. He´s probably not going to be president, or even the Republican nominee. But my guess is, he´s going to last a lot longer in the Republican primary than most of the other candidates because of this base.

Q: I noticed that the Democrats seem to have more online activity.

Sifry: We´ve been watching this since last January, and in terms of just organic mentions of the candidates on blogs, the Democrats outnumber the Republicans by about two to one. You see a similar thing reflected in the number of donations and the amount of donations.

Q: Why is that?

Rasiej: The issue is whether the parties view the Web as friend or foe. The reason the Republicans are having a significantly harder time is that this bottom-up, Internet-style campaign culture that´s coming to the fore is very foreign to traditional Republican political messaging and distribution. On the other hand, the Democrats´ information infrastructure was pretty lame compared with the Republicans´. But as the tools of the Internet became easier to use, the Democrats´ rank and file took hold of the technology.

Q: So what´s next?

Rasiej: We´re looking at tracking the actual media coverage the candidates get and which quotes by the candidates are getting the most exposure in the press. We are also considering launching a new site, TechCongress, to keep track of how technology is being used in [this year´s] Congressional races.