Earlier this year I sat down with Jennifer Stromer-Galley, Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, and Vice President of the Association of Internet Researchers. Professor Stromer-Galley also served as the primary thesis advisor, mentor, and role model for one Infamous Scribbler. The topic of discussion centered around the release of Stromer-Galley’s new book, Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age, which explores how presidential campaigns from Bob Dole’s 1996 run to Barack Obama’s 2012 victory utilized the resources of the Internet available to them at the time.
The book came about during a conversation with the editor of the Oxford University Press Digital Politics book series, Andy Chadwick, who invited Stromer-Galley to submit a book proposal. Although she was in the midst of trying to obtain tenure — and balancing work and home life obligations — Stromer-Galley really wanted to write a book. Her proposal was accepted, and the deadline later extended to encompass the 2012 US presidential campaign.
A main aspect of online communication, one that differentiates the digital environment from earlier media such as film, broadcast radio, etc., is the aspect of interactivity. From comments sections on news articles to political candidates’ Facebook pages, online citizens have come to expect that their digital experience will not just be a one-way street. Rather, there will be someone at the other end of the wire.
According to Stromer-Galley, one of the paradoxes of online campaigns is that while candidates need to create, maintain, and manage a digital presence, which includes inviting citizens to participate in their forums, quizzes, video question submissions, etc., those same campaigns may fall victim to the pitfalls of the interactivity.
“Campaigns aren’t generally interested in devoting time, energy, and resources to holding open discussion forums or promoting opportunities for genuine interaction with the electorate on strategy or policy,” said Stromer-Galley. This approach is based first in practicality — campaigns don’t necessarily have resources to spend in generating discussion for discussion’s sake, unless it is tied to strategic goals, such as fundraising or bringing in new supporters or followers.
Additionally, Stromer-Galley continued, there are dangers to inviting true interactivity. One instance she cites is the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Dean, running as an outsider with a Web-savvy campaign manager, raised enough awareness and money to catapult him into the eye of traditional media by creating a blog that generated “…a sense of community and parasocial interaction (a sense that [supporters were] a part of the campaign.)” However, the online portion of his campaign was not fully integrated into his policies and strategy, and Dean’s candidacy unraveled.
Stromer-Galley explores in depth each US presidential campaign from 1996 to 2012, devoting a full chapter to not simply the front-runners, but to primary election dynamics as well. Her study focuses not only upon the online aspects of campaigns, but how the Internet outreach interacted with the traditional media portions of the campaigns. She examines, when appropriate, campaign personnel dynamics and how the candidates structured their approach to online presence management. Throughout the book, she charts the evolution of online campaigns from an afterthought, to an experiment, to a fully-integrated aspect of a presidential campaign.
“Campaigns have learned that [a] sort of two-step flow of messaging—campaign to super-supporter to the super-supporter’s social network—was more effective at converting people into supporters than mass-media messaging,” said Stromer-Galley.
Campaigns are effectively strategic organizations, focused on winning or losing, and not necessarily fostering democratic interactivity. Instead, they aim for a “transactional relationship,” in which they utilize supporters to grow more support (pg.177).
After reading the book, I wondered if elected administrations would attempt to capitalize on this incredibly energy generated around campaigns, and possibly try to continue citizen engagement in perhaps a more democratic setting.
The Obama administration has tried in various ways to energize support or engagement on various topics, according to Stromer-Galley. Although she has not done research on this topic, her observations suggest that energizing ordinary citizens outside of presidential campaigns is extremely difficult, with the exception of interest groups and their members.
“This is the reason why I think presidential campaigns are an important time in our democracy for us to have more explicit policy discussions with ordinary Americans, and digital media could be used to facilitate those discussions,” said Stromer-Galley. “Citizens are paying attention, and their input is more likely to be heard then and have some influence than at other times. But, political candidates aren’t interested in those sorts of conversations because they don’t help win elections.”