A virtual route to the White House

The internet is poised to play an unprecedented role in determining who will succeed George W Bush a

Republican hopefuls in the battle to win their party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential election have so far opted to announce their bids from traditional venues: Rudolph Guiliani on CNN's Larry King Live and Mitt Romney from the Henry Ford Museum. John McCain varied it slightly by opting for a more comedic approach, making his presidential intentions public on CBS's Late Night with David Letterman.

Slightly less traditional, Democrat John Edwards dispensed with the usual prepared text and crowd of political groupies when he was filmed announcing his bid in New Orleans' hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. But it was Edwards' hot-ticket competitors, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who made made big political waves for political Web surfers: they scrapped television entirely to instead announce their bids online.

Obama's announcement video appeared on his website on 16 January and, thanks to the provided code, was embedded within hours in hundreds of blogs and websites. Just five days later, Clinton followed Obama's lead, and a strangely similar (but not shareable) video on her website announced “I'm In.”

What's the strategy behind these surprising online announcements?

There are a few possibilities. For one, online videos let the candidates have complete control of timing, an aspect Clinton took full advantage of when she announced so soon after Obama and on the same Saturday as Bush's State of the Union address. Beginning their presidential campaigns online also allowed the candidates to take control their image from the get-go and make up for any personality flaws. Clinton, for example, is sometimes criticised as being cold and not personal, but you wouldn't guess that when she's beaming at you like a best friend relaxing on an overstuffed couch.

In a time of blossoming online relationships, it's only natural to assume people will find watching a video from the comfort of their personal computer a more intimate experience than watching a nationally televised speech of a politician flanked by crowds of screaming supporters. Viewers watching Obama speak close-up online might feel his words are directed solely at them and may be much more likely to listen if they feel he will concentrate on addressing their individual needs.

Obama and Clinton eliminated distance, creating a virtual bridge from sea to shining sea, and causing an explosion of excitement as Americans discovered who could occupy the White House in two years' time. By avoiding the traditional format of television, the two Democrats cunningly prevented their launch messages from becoming adorned by the partisan commentary of political journalists. Instead, their online videos subtly encouraged viewers click at will, forming their own opinions and often creating free publicity for the candidates through linking and discussion.

Announcing online is just another creative political stunt, but don't think it won't happen again, and there's no denying the Internet is playing a bigger role in the 2008 presidential election than ever before. Candidates from all parties are devoting valuable time and resources into developing their websites into key campaign tools that let voters “interact” extensively with them. Suddenly it's not only the media but ordinary voters who are the scrutinizing watchdogs of candidates' every moves.

Watch out, the road to the U.S. presidency is going to be strewn with more cyber surprises, and logging onto candidates' websites may begin to feel like participating in a highly interactive, informational online arcade. But the campaign that gets most creative in virtual strategising might just end up on top in 2008.

Hana Bieliauskas is a junior at Ohio University majoring in magazine journalism. She is currently studying in London.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.