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.