Just four years ago, now-Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Howard Dean was believed by many to have set the standard for future elections by running a hugely effective grass-roots, Internet-based campaign.
Though his bid to reach the White House eventually came to a screeching halt, it seemed Dean had finally blazed an electronic trail future candidates would follow.
After Super Tuesday, a quick glance at the remaining candidates suggests most have yet to figure out how to fully use the Web to reach potential voters. In fact, the candidate with the most significant Web presence, Ron Paul, has been marginalized by his own party, as well as by Democrats and the mainstream media. This reality suggests the parties and traditional media outlets are not ready to accept the Web as a viable campaign medium on par with TV.
According to the Dec. 9, 2007, issue of The New York Times Magazine, the presidential candidate with the most YouTube subscribers was Ron Paul with 38,341, and Barack Obama came in a distant second at 12,992.
Last November, Paul supporters organized an online fundraiser that generated $4 million in a single day - a feat no one ever before had accomplished. Paul's all-but-dead campaign had a well established presence on various social networking sites, such as Flickr, Facebook, MySpace and StumbleUpon. Interested voters could even download Ron Paul widgets and banners. Meanwhile, the campaign continued to raise millions online, and thousands of dedicated Paul supporters are trying to spread the word, both online and off.
So what did this Web presence bring Paul? Fourth place, 16 delegates and no states won. The cause of such a lackluster showing is certainly worth speculation. The highly unreliable youth vote is always first to draw blame, and for good reason. Young people generally don't vote in the large numbers that candidates wooing them need. It could be argued that the digital divide has prevented potential Paul supporters from getting the message. It might also be that Paul and his message simply didn't appeal to enough people.
The more cynical - and perhaps more accurate - explanation is that broadcast news, as well as the Republican National Committee and the DNC, still get far more mileage out of TV and radio than from the Web. Candidates such as Paul threaten tradition by using the Web to inspire legions of followers.
It might be that Hillary Clinton, John McCain and NBC News aren't sure how to do that themselves - and instead of learning how to better embrace Web campaigns, they work collectively to diminish those who have.