Where’s the innovation gone in online politics?

With just a month left until Primary Election Day and four months to go until the mid-term elections, a sad reality is making itself more obvious for people who use the Internet to follow political news: This campaign season is one of the worst for innovation in political coverage.

While use of previous ideas is providing plenty of campaign coverage value, we’re hard-pressed to identify new significant apps, Web sites, or practices that could be a game-changer for political news coverage in 2010. Over the last ten years, the development of such tools was standard, possibly peaking in 2008. Many of those innovations have become so ingrained, that we don’t think about them much anymore. But something has happened: innovation has slowed considerably and we may go through the entire campaign cycle without a significant new tool.

Twitter, perhaps, had the greatest possibility to change the relationship between candidate and voter, but it has yet to achieve anything close to its potential. Consider these typical tweets from gubernatorial candidates over the last week.




For a politician on Twitter, everyone is always happy and things are going great.

The dearth of political tools is most evident when you look at the history of the developing relationship between technology and politics.


The St. Petersburg Times debuts PolitiFact, which “examines more than 750 political claims, separating rhetoric from truth to enlighten voters.” It was so game-changing that it won a Pulitzer in 2009. Other media (including MPR with its PoliGraph) have copied the idea. That’s a good thing.

Nate Silver, who made a name for himself analyzing baseball statistics, debuts fivethirtyeight.com, to use polling and other science to predict the election. It’s a hit. In 2010, he agrees to be absorbed by the New York Times.

Barack Obama mobilizes an online team and creates an “Obama community” to rally support for his presidential bid. He announces his selection of Joe Biden as his vice president running mate via text messaging. Obama’s free Obama08 app organized a person’s iPhone contacts to enable supporters to call friends located in important electoral districts. After he’s elected, some experts predict his large database of online supporters would change the way presidents seek support. The experts were wrong.

The Uptake provides citizen journalism with reports from Iowa. It would go on to become the go-to site for coverage of the Norm Coleman-Al Franken recount.


CNN hosts the first YouTube debate.


More candidates turn to online fundraising and add video capability to Web sites with the notion of removing the editorial filter of mainstream media.

But online video proves to be a two-edged sword for politicians as opponents begin following candidates. “Macaca moment” becomes a part of the language.


A host of political blogs sprout around the presidential election, many fueled by disputes over the military careers of John Kerry and George W. Bush. The experts say the blogs, perhaps more than mainstream media, will influence political thought. The experts were right. Powerline wins Time’s Blog of the Year for its role in uncovering phony documents used by CBS News in examining President Bush’s military record.

Electoral-vote.com begins providing daily predictions of the electoral vote in the November election based on individual state polls.


E*Democracy, an online-coordinated political community, harnesses a group of volunteers to work with the Minnesota Secretary of State to develop MyBallot.net, which allows people to enter their address and find out where they should vote, and provides them with links and sample ballots indicating what races are on the individual’s ballot.

MPR unveils Select A Candidate, a tool which matches potential voters with candidates who most closely match their views. In 2008, MPR made Select A Candidate available to other Web sites in the nation.

DailyKos is created, which mobilizes liberal Democrats.


A group of former staffers at the Federal Elections Commission begins posting the campaign finance reports of candidates, making them searchable. The tool changes the game for monitoring money in politics. Other Web sites — the Center for Responsive Politics, for example — begin providing monitoring tools.


Candidates post their campaign ads online, which also inaugurates the “fact checking” of campaign ads. Within a few years, candidates respond by producing ads more quickly, and stress image more than facts.


The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office provides online election results. Over the course of the next decade, this developing technology would transfer election results to other media sites, much of which is then used to provide analytical tools.

  • RadioNed
  • bsimon

    We may be getting closer to the point where innovation is most likely to sprout in this election cycle; the vast majority of voters haven’t started paying attention yet.

    re: twitter, I’m not sure how candidates could exploit that technology; though I say that from the position of not having a twitter account – which may make the point: how would twitter help candidates reach people with whom they don’t already have contact?

    Meanwhile, a guy knocked on our door the other day, promoting a candidate for state Rep; the candidate didn’t have a party affiliation listed on the flyer, but I’ve been meaning to look him up. Though the odds of taking out Rep Wagenius with a door-knocking campaign are extremely long, I think.

  • JackU

    Is it possible that new things are being done, but they just don’t seem so innovative this time around? After all Twitter and Facebook are so “last year” that a candidates use of them may be seen as necessary.

    @RadioNed: How would that be different from the coming onslaught of TV ads by the candidates? As far as noise pollution I think we get enough from AM Talk Radio and cable TV news. (From which ever side you listen.)

    @bsimon: How does their use of Twitter reach people not on Twitter? Via stories like this.

  • Bob Collins

    I wonder if the lack of innovation is symptomatic of the cuts in organizations? To the point where there’s no time for innovation, and yet the beast must be fed? Maybe this is how the last few years manifests itself ?

  • bsimon

    “How does their use of Twitter reach people not on Twitter? Via stories like this.”

    Fair enough; not to disparage newscut, but if that’s the candidates’ strategy, they’re all gonna lose…

  • bsimon

    “I wonder if the lack of innovation is symptomatic of the cuts in organizations? To the point where there’s no time for innovation, and yet the beast must be fed? Maybe this is how the last few years manifests itself ?”

    Hard to say. Some of the innovations in question – including my two favorites, electoral-vote.com & 538 – are the result of individuals with an interest in the subject matter having an idea & implementing it, independent of cost / payback. Something like politifact, that comes out of an organization (or perhaps an individual within an organization) is more likely to be impacted by budgets – like the fantasy legislature project.

    Where’s the innovation happening now? Is it even ‘online’ per se? Or is it in phone apps?

  • Bob Collins

    That’s the point; there’s no online innovation going on from a political coverage point of view. We haven’t taken a step forward from ’08. It’s possible this sort of thing tracks presidential elections but, let’s face it, we’re in the middle of THAT cycle, too.

    Phone apps would be the place to expect something innovative. But what is it? Nothing’s come out yet that I’m aware of.

  • boB from WA

    Has anyone considered the possibility that we are on a plateau for innovation right now. Does there always have to be “the next big thing” every election cycle? Think about the growth of “innovation” that occurred prior to ’98? I’d be willing to bet that there were spikes and plateaus there.

  • Back in 1994 – http://e-democracy.org/1994 , then again in 2006 we did online candidate debates:


    Our pre-caucus e-debate in 1998 may have been the first to include Jesse Ventura.

    In 2006 we had some Blandin Foundation funding, but the amount of effort required to pull of a high quality candidate exchange means we haven’t considered such an effort in 2010 (yet … busy these days with other funded efforts).

    These folks are trying to do something with video questions go candidates in a number of states including Minnesota:



    Steven Clift


  • John O.

    Perhaps part of the reason for the lack of innovation is a lack of any “new” messages or themes. Look at Twitter or comments on any number of news sites: each side spouts the same arguments and counterarguments day in and day out.

    As Marshall McLuhan stated in “The Medium is the Message:”

    “The line, the continuum-this sentence is a great example-became the organizing principle of life. ‘As we begin, so shall we go.’ ‘Rationality’ and logic came to depend on the presentation of connected and sequential facts or concepts.”

    When the line between “facts” and “concepts” gets blurred, the result is a varied concoction of vitriol, stereotypes, anger, frustration and fright, sprinkled with varying doses of information to taste.