In every election cycle, a key group of swing voters emerges as the most sought-after political prize for candidates fighting for the presidency. In the 1980s, it was blue-collar and working class "Reagan Democrats." Bill Clinton reached out to a generation of economically upscale and socially moderate suburban parents for his success. Then, soccer moms (2000) became security moms (2004) who became hockey moms. But with the emergence of the increasingly vital, active and influential online political community, it's clear that the candidate that wins the hearts and minds of the independent-minded "Millennials" (read: youth / new voters) -- and actually gets them to the polls on Election Day -- will win the White House.
In past elections, the turnout among youngest eligible voters has been disappointingly low. This year, however, it has been quite different. Turnout among 18-25 year olds broke records in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key primary and caucus states. Millions of young voters cast their ballots or showed up to caucus in the primary contests, sometimes even tripling or quadrupling their turnout from recent years.
A recent MySpace/NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of these new and returning voters demonstrated that by a margin of 2-1, new voters support Sen. Obama, who has utilized the best of the Internet to capitalize on this key demographic . Sen. McCain did appeal to this key voting bloc while participating in the MySpace/MTV Presidential Dialogue last December, and in the weeks following, McCain's polling numbers in New Hampshire started their ascent toward his eventual nomination. In recent weeks, however, polling is showing that these young, independents are moving solidly behind Obama. The question is: Can Sen. Obama motivate these supporters to actually turn out?
No one can argue that online tools, such as MySpace and YouTube have not drastically altered the political landscape. Rather than being on the receiving end of a series of one-way monologues from political and media elite, the Millennials are talking back online -- to the candidates, news anchors, and most importantly, other voters -- in an ongoing effort to reshape the election-year dialogue.
The campaigns have become much more sophisticated in their online presence and outreach, but nowhere is the impact of technology being felt more deeply than in the world of social networking, where young voters (and increasing numbers of "hockey moms," as well) have become the most persuasive force on behalf of the candidates and causes of their choice.
The social networking space gives the ability to communicate and connect with one another across cultural, geographic and even political boundaries. The campaigns that have empowered and fostered those conversations have harnessed the power and energy of an entire generation of young people eager to claim their place in the political debate. This generation is energetic and aware of their global citizenship, and their active participation online translates into a community mentality. Oh... and they also happen to be the largest generation in American history.
A few years back, a young New York Congressman compared ten minutes on a cable news program to a full day of door-knocking back in the district. Today, a successful viral campaign video launched on a candidate's (or a supporter's) social network page, and sent out by bulletin to one's "friends," could easily be viewed by over a million people in just the first few hours. Case in point: the singer Will.i.am's video featuring a mashup of Senator Obama's words with famous friends and a catchy tune exploded around the web on its release. An "E-candidate" (a candidate with an understanding of the online voter mobilization capability) could easily target every voting-age social network user in their home districts with distilled messages. In 2010, it will be very likely that many Congressional and city and state races could be decided simply by which candidate has a stronger online presence. A campaign no longer has the luxury of thinking of the Internet as an afterthought, but rather it must be a major part of the strategy of every campaign from president down to student body president going forward.
The use and success of John McCain's and Barack Obama's online presence makes it clear that party ideology is not an obstacle to a credible social networking presence. The real obstacles are lack of will, interest and understanding of what a generation that has been raised on the Internet requires from their political leaders.
Come January, as the Inauguration celebrations come to a close, one thing is clear: the next President of the United States will communicate online, and the Millennial Generation will expect the President -- and all of its representatives -- to continue to speak, and listen, to his/her constituents in the open community forum of the Internet.
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