The Internet As A Force In Politics: "Obama Would Not Have Won Without The Internet"

New York Magazine’s John Heilemann is leading a panel at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco this morning on “The Web and Politics.” Joining him is San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Arianna Huffington and Joe Trippi.

The session jumped right off with Heilemann saying the Internet played a disruptive role in the 2008 election in the same way television played a disruptive role in the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy to president. Neither medium was new in the respective elections, but both “came of age” and swung the election towards the winning candidate. Kennedy, in particular, used television ads extensively in his campaign to reach the American voters directly, and embraced simple things like makeup:

The televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was probably the most decisive event for the election of 1960. The growth of TV as a new medium, and declined use of radio marked a significant change in how campaigns are ran today. For the TV appearence, Nixon refused to wear make-up and therefore appeared unshaven, tired and sweaty under the lights. Kennedy, however, did wear the make-up and so appeared cooler and more composed than Nixon. Kennedy, before the debate, returned tan and attractive from vacation. Not only did Kennedy appear to be better groomed, and handsome, his suit was navy popping off the grey back drop. Nixon’s suit was grey, blending in to the curtain behind him. With these factors combined, Among TV viewers agreed, Kennedy won the debate. Richard Nixon’s deep, strong, radio appealing voice won over all radio listeners, they agreed Nixon won the debate. Nixon entered the race ahead of Kennedy. Television as a new medium changed presidential elections from this point on, marking the election of 1960 significant. Radio voice failed to prevail over now “candidate centered” television campaigns.

Huffington says flat out that if it wasn’t for the Internet, Obama would not be president. Trippi notes that Obama’s YouTube spots gathered an aggregate of 14.5 million viewing hours. The Internet was used by candidate previously, he said, noting the Howard Dean campaign, but Obama really leveraged it fully with online video, blogging, social networking and fundraising.

The panelists also note how mainstream media tends to fail in politics, simply reporting on what each candidate says without saying who’s right or wrong. The blogosphere, they say (particularly Trippi and Huffington), tends to call out factual inaccuracies better than mainstream media.

Howard Dean showed that the Internet could be used to raise lots of money online, say the panelists. But Newsom says social networking is significantly more powerful and allows for the creation of much more meaningful connections between the candidate and voters. “I’m addicted to Facebook,” he said.

Newsom also notes that “every single thing a candidate says, and how he says it,” is available online for people to review and judge. And he questions whether candidates today are more authentic or less authentic now that they have to be “on” all the time.