The Digital Election: 2004

The potential of the Internet to transform election politics was evident in the 2004 presidential campaign. The Digital Election Project at the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement examined how digital communication and social software may revitalize grassroots participation in our most important democratic activity.

Although the use of the Internet in U.S. presidential campaigning has been growing steeply since 1996, many saw the 2004 contest as the first truly digital presidential election. Not only did all major candidates field at least one Web site, but many also maintained a strong multi-site presence, using the Internet to mobilize supporters through separate campaign Web-logs (or “blogs”), independent grassroots sites like, and unique pages for distinct groups of supporters by age or geographic region. The rise of candidacies such as those of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark reflect these practices, sparking a number of questions concerning the possibilities and effectiveness of the Internet as a national campaign tool.

Despite integrating information rich, interactive digital communication technologies into everyday life, young people continue to abandon politics and government in alarming numbers. At the same time, they want to make a difference in society. What are the reasons for the Generation Next’s political withdrawal? Can the appeal of the internet be harnessed to make a difference in the first digital election?

CCCE was proud to be a founding partner in Youth04 sought to synthesize the best of the political Internet and the best of traditional grassroots organizing to transform the role 18-25 year olds will play in politics.

Youth04’s chief goals were:

  1. To create effective strategies for young voters to express their beliefs and values in election 2004;
  2. To encourage candidates, their consultants, and the media to pay attention to young voters; and
  3. To increase voter turnout among young voters.

In a word, Youth04 aimed to create a relationship between young voters and candidates for political office, from president on down. The aim was to motivate both sides of the relationship to listen to each other. Youth04 aimed to empower young voters, and to make the system more responsive to them.

CCCE research initiatives in the Digital Election Project included:
Young Voters and the Web of Politics

With support from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), CCCE director Lance Bennett and staff member Mike Xenos (Ph.D. candidate in Political Science, Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Concentration in Political Communication), along with CCCE undergraduate fellows Christine Lee, David Iozzi and Theda Braddock, concluded a yearlong study of political and civic engagement resources available to young people on the Web, and links between these resources and political Web content aimed at wider audiences.

Integrating Center research on declining levels of youth engagement and the emerging role of the internet in American politics, the project documents the ways in which Web communication has been used to promote greater civic engagement among younger citizens and areas in which common practices fall short of utilizing the full potential of web-based political communication to reach out to American youth.

Please take a look at the executive summary and the full report on the CIRCLE Web site. The lists of the youth engagement and campaign sites included in the study are also available (Download Youth Engagement Sites PDF | Download Campaign Sites PDF).

The 2004 Campaign on the Web

Many of the campaigns for candidates running in the presidential primaries produced multiple Web sites, each of which supports their Web presence in different ways. Dr. Kirsten Foot (CCCE Associate Director), Meghan Dougherty (CCCE graduate research assistant), and Meghan McLaughlin (CCCE undergraduate research assistant), collaborated with Dr. Steve Schneider at the SUNY Institute of Technology on a study of presidential campaigns’ use of the Web. Since March 2003, they have been tracking the ways in which presidential campaigns engage in four practices of campaigning via the Web: informing, connecting, involving and mobilizing citizens. Although all the presidential campaigns use the Web for informing, they do so at different levels and through different types of information. Most of the presidential campaigns employed about half of the potential features for connecting citizens with other political actors and involved them in supporting the campaign. A few of the campaigns made extensive use of the Web’s mobilizing capacities, enabling supporters to become direct advocates for the candidate.

War Room vs. Desk Top: The Unlikely Rise of Howard Dean

How did the Dean campaign come from nowhere and into contention? This project under the direction of CCCE Director Lance Bennett and Undergraduate Research Fellow David Iozzi examines the growth of the national Dean network facilitated by self-organizing social software. Topics include: How Dean’s set online fundraising records. Why the national media paid attention. Why other campaigns have not learned to use the power of the internet and social software.

Crossing the Campaign Divide: Dean Changes the Election Game
David Iozzi and Lance Bennett