McCain vs. Obama on the Web
Candidate Sites as Information Sources
If part of the mission of the Web campaign is to offer your own message in place of or before the press corps, what information about the candidate, his background and policy stances do potential voters receive?
To get a sense of the content the candidates put up on their sites, PEJ extended its 2007 audit of candidate biographies to include four other elements as well, including issue pages, links to mainstream news media reports, press releases and videos.
Overall, we found that mainstream news plays only a supporting role to campaign-produced content. Press articles are mostly used to legitimize the candidates’ policy positions, with negative or unrelated content removed. Instead, issue positions, speeches, videos—especially campaign ads—and biographies dominate.
How are these sites defining, categorizing and presenting “news” content?
Both sites have broadened the “news” category to include campaign-produced content, including press releases, blogs, speeches, videos, photo galleries and issue positions, with mainstream media articles often less prominent.
Based on PEJ’s August 2008 content analysis, the McCain news section (In the News) is far more likely than the Obama site to use its own press releases for news posts rather than media reports. About 40% of the news posts on the McCain site were their own press releases versus just 12% on the Obama news page. The McCain home page also links to other campaign-produced media, including a “Weekly Radio Address” (digital streaming audio), and “Photos of the Week” taken mostly by campaign staff on the trail.
In contrast, the Obama home page news section (Obama News) usually links directly to mainstream media news excerpts from the home page. However, the blog section of his Web site (Obama Blog) is given prominence over the news section on the home page. Altogether, blog content makes up almost two-thirds of all news content on the home page, with a regular “Morning News” post containing a handful of excerpted articles from the mainstream.
The Issues sections of the Web sites are places where Obama and McCain promote their agendas directly. Obama gives positions on 23 separate issues, while McCain provides details on 17 issues.
If priorities for leadership can be gleaned from the number of words devoted to each subject, Obama and McCain have starkly different agendas. McCain generally devotes more space to foreign policy and defense. For Obama, families and urban policy trumps foreign policy.
Each site offers some unique issue pages that appeal to their core constituencies. McCain, for his part, seeks to boost his conservative credentials with a G.O.P. membership that has been at times been critical of his campaign. In “Judicial Philosophy” McCain is critical of judges who “legislate from the bench.” And, targeting social issues, McCain has a section on “Sanctity of Life,” which favors overturning Roe v. Wade and on “Second Amendment,” affirming his support for the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms.
Obama has an Issues section devoted to “Faith,” which calls for “a deeper, more substantive discussion about the role of faith in American life.”
McCain does have a page on his site detailing his stance on select issues compared with Obama, but this is not featured in the Issues section, and presents his own subjective characterizations of the Democrat’s policies. 
The Issues pages showed only a few changes from August to September. The Obama Web site dropped seven topics—agriculture, arts, child advocacy, Katrina, science, sportsmen and transportation—merging agriculture with a topic page on rural policy and eliminating the rest. The McCain site added sections on education and technology.
Both candidates use video content on their home pages. The McCain site regularly introduces Web and television ads on the main section of the home page, while Obama’s branded channel “BarackTV” is a fixture on the right sidebar, and plays campaign ads, recent speeches and live streaming video from the campaign trail.
While video content varies from day-to-day, the Obama Web site utilizes video more regularly in various sections of the site than does the McCain site. Videos from the mainstream media, campaign and third-party sources (mostly volunteers) are a staple of the Obama blog, whereas video on the McCain Web site is generally confined to the home page, the Multimedia section and is select issue pages.
Both presidential candidates are in a pitched battle for Hispanic votes come November. Each candidate has a Spanish language version of his Web site, targeting Spanish-speaking eligible voters. So how do these Web sites compare with their English language counterparts?
On McCain’s Spanish language Web site, the content is limited to the home page, biographies and synopses of issue positions. If a Spanish speaker wants to read more about an issue, he or she is directed to the full issues page on the English language site.
Obama’s translated site is similarly sparse on issue positions, offering shorter summaries of the issue pieces than on the English language site. Both versions of Obama’s Web site host a page devoted to Latinos (People). The coalition page provides a summary of Obama’s positions on “Hispanic issues” in Spanish and a “Latino Blueprint for Change” in English.
One key substantive difference is the McCain campaign’s treatment of immigration as an issue on Spanish language Web site. Border security is the main focus of McCain’s summary position on both the English and Spanish pages, but the Spanish version is augmented by text that promotes the U.S. as a “gleaming city on the hill” and vows McCain will implement solutions that “combine compassion with the necessities of our economy.”
1. The Decision Center. ( http://www.johnmccain.com/decisioncenter/) Retrieved August 13, 2008.