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Page last updated at 16:51 GMT, Friday, 3 October 2008 17:51 UK

US candidates employ tech power

Campaign websites
Tech has been used as a powerful tool in US electoral politics

Ian Hardy looks at how technology is helping, and hindering, the race to the Whitehouse more than ever before.

American presidential campaigns have dabbled with blogs and online fundraising and the like before, but the online landscape has evolved.

During the last election cycle four years ago YouTube did not exist, micro-blogging website Twitter had sent zero tweets, and Facebook was a student hangout.

Alexandra Acker from Young Democrats of America describes the new online developments as "a huge layer in communications".

"We've seen tons of Facebook groups for every candidate and cause you can think of. What we've really seen, in addition to the donation side of it, is that fundraising has been made so much easier," she said.

Household names and charismatic candidates are helping the election to play out in the real world and on the internet.

But the big change this time around is that new technology is being employed as powerful political tools.

'Incentivise'

US presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have hired some of the country's smartest techies to create their online universes.

In addition, individual political groups have also built their own widgets and plug-ins to further their cause.

Ethan Eilon from the collegerepublicans.org has been campaigning for the Republican Party through a network called Storm.

John McCain and Barack Obama greet one another at a forum on national service at Columbia University, September 11 2008
Blogs have provided round the clock discussion of campaign issues

"It allows our members to join up with the rest of their chapter and the rest of their state organisation, get involved with events that are going on, communicate with one another.

"They also earn impact points so that we can then incentivise them to go out and do all the hard work that needs to be done between now and November," he said.

With blogs discussing issues around the clock, gone are the days when a campaign could push out one central theme each day on television.

Voters have many new ways to access information, including all the gaffs, bloopers, misquotes and spoofs that will follow the candidates for years.

SMS campaign

Democratic candidate Barack Obama tried a novel approach to announce his running mate. He said that anyone who signed up online would get the news first via a SMS alert.

But reporters scooped the campaign, which eventually sent the SMS message at 3am on a Saturday morning.

Kevin Bertram from Distributive Networks, the company that set up the service, said he was "disappointed… but it was still a very valuable exercise".

The Obama campaign was left with a huge database of useful e-mails from supporters to tap into in the future.

Republican candidate John McCain is also using technology to win votes, and raise money, through a downloadable toolbar that generates tiny cash contributions with each click.

Other sites include online tools to tell voters how much they will pay in taxes depending on the way they vote.

Plus, Google's "In Quotes" site makes speeches from both sides searchable.

Sarah searches

There is now a greater sense of immediacy, as micro-blogging Twitter allows users to share their thoughts during the presidential live debates.

Mobile phone user
Mobiles could one day be used to collect supporters' micro-donations

According to one internet traffic measuring company, voters are more interested in the politicians rather than their actual policies.

"In terms of visitation to their website, Obama is hands down more popular, capturing about 75% of overall traffic versus McCain," said Marc Johnson from Hitwise.

"That said, the Palin effect has now taken over, with searches for Sarah Palin being twice as many as the next political candidate," he added.

Despite the innovative ideas and webware on display during this campaign, it is the mobile phone that may dominate the 2012 elections.

The population, especially low-income voters, are more likely to have a phone than a computer or broadband access.

The prospect of micro-donations via a mobile phone, at the moment almost unheard of in the US, has both parties excited.

SEE ALSO
Obama uses iPhone to win support
03 Oct 08 |  Technology
Palin e-mail hack details emerge
19 Sep 08 |  Technology

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