Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Deus Ex Machina: Candidate Web Presence and the Presidential Nomination Campaign

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Deus Ex Machina: Candidate Web Presence and the Presidential Nomination Campaign

Article excerpt

Since party reforms opened up the presidential nomina- tion process, parties have slowly changed the nature of nomination campaigns. Momentum, horserace media coverage, and information dynamics still shape the pri- mary process and nomination outcomes during the con- test period, but the demands of a compressed and frontloaded system limit how much long-shot candidates gain from these factors. Not surprisingly, recent scholar- ship has found that a candidate's level of party-insider and political support at the beginning of primary season largely determines the nomination (Cohen et al. 2008; Mayer 2003). Long shots have less of a chance to com- pete with early front-runners (Steger 2000), leading some scholars to complain that the rules have essentially turned back previous reforms (Aldrich 2009; Cohen et al. 2008) to the point "that it can barely be considered truly a dem- ocratic selection at all" (Aldrich 2009, 33).

Concurrent with these changes, we have witnessed a massive technological change in the development and use of the Internet. These changes likely benefit those candi- dates with broad or intense national appeal, regardless of party-insider status. Despite little empirical evidence, the low costs and social nature of Internet communication have motivated practitioners and scholars to claim that it is a potential game changer. The Internet may free candi- dates from the burdens of fund-raising that plagued previ- ous failed nominations (Aldrich 2009; Paolino and Shaw 2003). Moreover, it potentially gives greater resources to grassroots activists within the nomination process (Trippi 2004). Thus, the advantages party insiders and front-run- ners experience from frontloading may be mitigated by the Internet's benefits to long-shot candidates.

A cursory examination of recent contests provides some evidence for these claims. Consider outsider candi- date for the Republican nomination Ron Paul. On November 5, 2007, an enthusiastic supporter who spe- cialized in Internet marketing coordinated a "money bomb" in which approximately 35,000 donors contrib- uted to his campaign. More than $4.2 million was raised that day, breaking the single-day fund-raising record over the Internet and propelling Paul into the limelight. Having been skirted by traditional media outlets in much of the 2007 invisible primary, Paul's newfound wealth raised his prominence within the field and allowed him to com- pete through the duration of the nomination process and raise his stature as leader of the Republican Party's liber- tarian faction.

Likewise, approximately four years earlier, Howard Dean, a then little-known Governor of Vermont, also saw his electoral viability change drastically. Dean's campaign took a turn for the better in terms of fund- raising and polling status in the fall of 2003. Via Meetup. com, a network software that allowed for campaigning via the Internet, Dean's campaign cultivated a host of grassroots supporters and individual donors. By early 2004, and entering the Iowa caucus, Dean had a network of enthusiastic supporters, the most amount of funds raised and the most amount of cash on hand among the Democratic field.

Although neither candidate won the nomination, both campaigns are now commonly referenced as Internet suc- cess stories because they launched relatively obscure can- didates into prominence within the presidential nomination and did so with the help of the Internet. Traditional media and party elites ignored both candi- dates until they garnered broad grassroots support and large contributions from individuals. Thus, the Internet provided a cheap platform for grassroots campaigning and fund-raising, an opportunity that, at least anecdotally, seems especially beneficial to long-shot candidates.

The following study provides some of the first evalua- tions of whether a candidate's presence on the Internet represents a different and meaningful facet to nomination campaigns. Specifically, we evaluate two related ques- tions on the role of the Internet in nomination campaigns. …

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