Sarah Palin has almost a half-million Twitter followers. Mitt Romney announced his presidential exploratory committee in a Web video. And on Wednesday, President Obama is visiting Facebook's California headquarters for a virtual town hall meeting.
Though Obama's Facebook visit isn't officially a campaign event, there's no denying that new media are going to have a huge impact on the 2012 presidential election — and not necessarily in the ways you would expect.
Something New — And Something Old
If there's one thing about the Web you can count on, it's that a trickster with an idea can undermine even the best-laid plans.
Republican Jon Huntsman learned that the hard way. He was preparing to step down as Obama's ambassador to China in favor of a possible presidential run when a Democratic activist bought the website jonhuntsman.com. The site went live this week — with a letter that Huntsman wrote, just after he got the China job, praising President Obama as a "remarkable leader."
Democratic new media consultant Kombiz Lavasany says the activist bought the site on a whim.
"He now essentially has Jon Huntsman's campaign domain to do whatever he wants," Lavasany says. "And these are things that anybody can participate in, whether they're an outside group with money or whether they're just an activist who's unhappy about something and wants to create a Facebook group."
And while Facebook is one important weapon in the online political arsenal, it will take more than that to win the 2012 fight.
Liberal activist Adam Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee says the most useful tools for mobilizing people are the old-school ones.
"Really the most efficient way to organize people online remains email," Green says. "One concrete example: If a million people join a Facebook group in support of some candidate, but you want to have a rally in one local city, Facebook doesn't allow you to target people who just live in that city."
From Pull To Push
Internet activism has always been a medium of inclusiveness — Twitter and YouTube rather than either/or. And this time around, there will be even more new technologies no presidential candidate has used before, such as canvassing apps for the iPhone and iPad, or location-targeting technologies for field organizers.
At the same time, classic sites like Facebook and Google have new features that could change the 2012 dynamic in unpredictable ways.
"For even the most traditional kinds of actors to be nimble in these spaces, it's mostly going to depend on their willingness to exploit these new tools and their interest in going into places where all the outcomes aren't necessarily well understood," says Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life project.
Pew research shows that, aided by the Tea Party's enthusiasm, Republicans caught up to Democrats in their use of new media during the 2010 midterm elections.
Republican Becki Donatelli, John McCain's chief Internet strategist during his two presidential runs, says she thinks the 2012 campaign is a jump ball where the Web advantage could go to either party.
Donatelli says politicians on the Web used to try to pull people online from wherever they were to the candidate's home page — now, they are trying to push.
"Instead of hoping to get them back to a website," Donatelli says, "we're delivering them messages on Facebook, [through] targeted advertising, email, pushing out messages to the political landscape."
So instead of having to visit Sarah Palin's blog to see what she thinks, you get those messages automatically popping up in your Facebook or Twitter feed.
A Means To An End
Right now, the biggest force in the 2012 race is the Obama re-election campaign. One Democratic official says the strategy is for a small number of campaign staff to serve a mass movement of people using the Web to self-organize.
That official says they want people a year from now to say, "This was the easiest campaign to get involved with ever."
But the Web is still just a means to an end. The ultimate goal is to get people personally involved or to get their money — and with online fundraising on its way up, this is expected to be the most expensive campaign yet. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.