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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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