It's the Medium, Not the Messenger
By Jose Antonio Vargas
It's the Internet, stupid!
A new online and phone survey focusing on young voters -- with a third of the phone respondents reached on their cell phones -- found that it's not the candidates themselves, specifically Sen. Barack Obama, who are responsible for the record youth turnout in many primary states. The catalyst is the still evolving medium of the Internet, according to the study released today by Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, an independent public relations firm. Following on the heels of recent reports from CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement) and the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which both show increasing political engagement of voters under age of 30, the study further cements reports that the Web is the medium of choice for young voters.
The barrier to participating in campaigns and political life is simply lower than it used to be, whether it's the ease of uploading a political YouTube video or clicking but once to join a campaign group on Facebook. Last year, for example, no one stopped Meredith Segal, a student at Bowdoin College, from starting a Facebook group called "Students for Barack Obama."
"Just as radio and then later television in the 20th century vaulted American elections into distinctly new political eras, so will the Internet in the 21st century as even now the Millennials are transforming the way millions of voters want to be heard in this 2008 election," explained Larry Irving, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce and a member of Waggener's Advisory Council.
Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they are engaged in the election because of digital communications. About a quarter have sent or received a text message about the candidates. And -- consistent with the reports from CIRCLE and Pew Internet -- Obama has the edge over McCain. Of those surveyed, nearly 50 percent preferred Obama and 30 percent chose McCain. The Republican Party is perceived to be less adept than Democrats in online campaigning. When asked which party does a better job advancing digital communications, 55 percent said Democrats and 13 percent Republicans.
Beyond partisanship, however, lies a missing link. While the Internet is surely playing a role and young voters are poised to turn out in record numbers in November, the campaigns have yet to engage young voters -- a crucial demographic bloc in November -- in substantial policy discussions.
There's less than five months to go to remedy that.
This is one in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj-at-washpost-dot-com.
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