Tuesday Open Thread: Ron Paul, The Internet, And Politics
On the Web, the Ron Paul Army reigns. With or without their favorite presidential candidate’s consent, they flood Web forums, overwhelm online polls and berate bloggers. They build countless fan pages and dominate user-generated media sites. A few may have even hired Ukrainian spammers to fill millions of in-boxes with Paul-supporting propaganda.
But back in the offline world, Paul’s fanbase seems to vanish. In last week’s Iowa caucus, Paul received 10% of the vote, and in Wednesday’s New Hampshire primary, he earned just 8%–hardly matching the near-90% support in Web polls following Republican presidential debates.
It comes as little surprise that Paul–a libertarian who has vowed to abolish the Internal Revenue Service and reinstitute the gold standard–can’t pull votes from more mainstream conservative candidates. But the disparity between his online support and his performance in primaries raises the question: Is the power of the Internet to influence politics all that it’s cracked up to be?
I’m sure that this is something that people will be talking about for some time to come. After all, there is no denying the extent to which the Internet helped bring together people who supported Ron Paul. What’s most interesting about is that nearly all of the things that people point to when they talk about what the “Paulistians” did — the Meetup groups and the moneybombs being the big ones — were done outside the official campaign. In fact, I would say that the grassroots did more to get their candidates name out there than the official campaign did, although part of the problem the campaign faced last year was the fact that, to a large degree, they were being defined by their supporters rather than their candidate.
So why hasn’t the Internet phenomenon translated into the real world ?
I think there are a few reasons.
First, most people still get their news and information from the traditional media. They don’t read blogs, they don’t participate in online forums, and they don’t “Google Ron Paul.” When they make up their minds about a candidate, they do it in much the same way that Americans have been doing it for the past 50 years or so. Consider this:
Web users represent a surprisingly small slice of the American electorate, and politically motivated users are even rarer. A Pew Internet study performed last year shows that just 69% of Americans use the Web on a given day, and the same organization found in August 2006 that only 19% of Americans look for political news or information online.
Second, the Internet fan base does not accurately reflect the makeup of the voting population. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm for the Paul campaign online but that enthusiasm was never the same in the real world.
Third, the sub-set of people who are politically active on line are different from the American public in an important respect. Most Americans are not ideological and not necessarily into political activism on a daily basis. Ron Paul was winning online polls and straw polls because they were committed to their candidate. But they are a small part of the voting population, and not the people that a candidate needs to convince to vote for him or her.
It'[s arguably the case that Ron Paul has done better than he would have otherwise because of the Internet, but the lesson is clear — success on the Internet is not a ticket to the White House.