The Election Online: An Overnight Analysis

No, online politics weren’t as important in the Canadian election as they were in the Obama campaign. But US presidential campaigns, which run for almost two years, necessitate a focus on online campaigning, and Obama developed a particularly powerful model that combined a charismatic stage presence with online organizing – which I will say more about in future posts. Canadian campaigns, in contrast, involve a six week all-out blitz using both traditional and online media.

Looking back at the Canadian campaign, there are a number of ways online politics played an increasingly important role.

  • Online vetting of candidates conducted more diligently by constituency organizations and citizen journalists than by national party offices led to approximately a dozen candidates being dumped.
  • The online medium supported citizen mobilization in a number of ways. Most significantly, Quebec singer Michel Rivard’s “culture en peril” YouTube video, in three weeks, was visited 678,000 times in French and 191,000 in English. It contributed mightily to the Conservatives’ failure to achieve a breakthrough in Quebec. The online medium was where citizens went to protest Elizabeth May being shut out of the national leaders’ debate, and they achieved their goal – overnight. Finally, cyberspace was the place where strategic voting was organized, for example through the Fair Vote Canada Facebook group.
  • YouTube remains the place to spread the word about candidate gaffes. In this case, Stephane Dion’s “false start” answering the question of how he would respond to the credit crisis if he were PM had 175,000 visits in just 5 days. I find it surprising that Harper’s gaffe about responding to the stock market crash by buying stocks had only 1500 visits in the same period, which suggests that the “not a leader” negative advertising about Dion was more effective than the “right wing agenda” negative advertising about Harper.
  • Party ads got considerable attention online, for example 90,000 YouTube visits for the Liberal ad focusing on Harper’s plagiarism of Australian PM John Howard’s speech, 38,000 for the ad linking Harpernomics to George Bush, and 31,000 for Jack Layton’s “new kind of strong” ad. What we don’t know is how often they were visited on party websites, or indeed how frequently party websites were visited. Similarly, we don’t know how much money the parties raised through online donations, nor do we know how successful online initiatives like the Conservatives’ MyCampaign were. All that is closely held political information.

Another aspect of the online campaign that is apparent is that the media have put more and more of their commentary online. Judging by the number of comments, for example hundreds posted on Globe and Mail articles before the hard copies are delivered at 6 am, it is clear that the online readers are out there.

So judged by the standard of past election campaigns, yes, online campaigning and citizen engagement in all their manifestations mattered more than before.

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