September 15, 2008

McCain vs. Obama on the Web

Many observers have suggested the 2008 presidential campaign was the first Internet election, in which campaigns and citizens would make extensive use of the Web for organizing, fund-raising, networking, and announcing news.

With roughly seven weeks left in the final phase of the campaign, how are the campaigns using the Web? How developed are their Web campaigns? Which candidate has the edge online, and how so?

A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism finds both campaigns’ official sites are now quite advanced beyond anything we saw in previous years. For much of the campaign, Obama enjoyed a clear advantage in the new medium. Yet in the last few weeks, much as presidential preference polls have tightened, the McCain campaign has narrowed the gap online, substantially adding features and content since his nomination at the Republican Convention. New features, such as a social networking component, now rivals Obama’s. Nonetheless, entering the last turn in the race, Obama’s online social network of registered users is more than five times larger than McCain’s, according the sites’ own accounting, and his site draws almost three times as many unique visitors each week.

Among the study’s findings:

  • Since the Republican National Convention, the official McCain Web site, www.johnmccain.com, has substantially improved its customization and socialization tools to encourage online networking with fellow supporters and offline grassroots activity. Despite this, it still lags behind Obama’s site in various ways.
  • Obama’s Web site, www.barackobama.com, makes it much easier for supporters to take action. They can receive up-to-the-minute campaign news, pick up talking points, download campaign posters and flyers, make computer-assisted phone calls to undecided voters in swing states, and map out door-to-door canvassing operations in their area.
  • Even after the McCain enhancements, Obama has more MySpace friends by a nearly 6-to-1 margin, more Facebook supporters by more than a 5-to-1 margin, twice as many videos posted to his official YouTube channel, and has more YouTube channel subscribers, by an 11-to-1 margin.
  • Obama’s site links to mainstream media news stories about his candidacy more frequently than does McCain’s, which tends to bypass the mainstream media and link in its “news” section instead to campaign-generated press releases. That has ebbed somewhat recently, as the site has begun linking to news stories about Palin.
  • The word “change”—the motto of the Obama campaign—is now less prominent on the information pages of the Obama site than on McCain’s. On the Republican’s site “change” is among the top 20 most frequently used words.
  • The Obama Web site provides far more text than McCain’s, by virtue of the extensive archive of Obama’s speeches (in August alone, 50,676 words on Obama’s Web site versus 21,021 on McCain’s). If you take speeches by both candidates out of the mix, Obama’s site still features more words than McCain’s, but they are closer.
  • The McCain campaign has fully integrated his vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin—both textually and visually—into the Web site’s home page, while the Obama home page denotes his vice presidential pick, Joe Biden, much less prominently.

Aside from any differences in design and functionality, the Obama Web site has attracted many more users than McCain’s site. According to Hitwise, an Internet usage research company, the Obama Web site attracted a 72% share of visits to the two presidential Web sites for the week ending August 30, compared to 28% for McCain’s. Those percentages are consistent with the traffic between the two sites since June 28, when Hitwise began measuring usage of the presidential candidate Web sites.

These are among of the findings of a multi-stage study of candidate Web sites in the 2008 presidential campaign. The Project, which is part of the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, first audited the campaign Web sites in July 2007 during the early phase of the race. That initial study examined Web sites of the 19 announced presidential candidates. In that analysis, we found highly interactive communities but also some stark differences among the candidate sites, with Democrat Barack Obama’s emerging as one of the most advanced and Republican John McCain’s lagging far behind.

The Project re-examined the McCain and Obama Web sites in August and again September of 2008—before and after the national political conventions—deepening the original examination to include archived speeches, issue position pages, social network activity and new tools of engagement.