What has been the greatest shock so far in the American election? Barack Obama's meteoric Iowan rise? Hillary Clinton's tearful comeback in New Hampshire? John McCain's resurrection in South Carolina?
No. The biggest surprise thus far has been the relative insignificance of the internet in determining the outcome of the election. New media joins Republican flops Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani as the most dramatic no-shows in the nascent 2008 presidential race.
American new-media pundits predicted that 2008 would be the "YouTube election" – a poll decided by the bloggers, the social networkers and the other authors of user-generated content on the internet. It was supposed to be the election in which a successful candidate would emerge on the back of a democratic digital tsunami, raising huge sums of money and mobilising millions of supporters online.
Most of all, 2008 was supposed to be the year that traditional mainstream media would take a back seat to new media as the decisive force in shaping American public opinion about the election.
It certainly hasn't been a YouTube election. Pundits predicted a flood of so-called "macaca moments" – named after a 2006 incident in which George Allen, a notoriously conservative Republican candidate for the Senate, was captured on YouTube comparing a heckler of Indian descent to a "macaca" monkey – when "videographers" would post earth-shattering revelations about candidates.
But, fortunately, such an absurd and tasteless spectacle hasn't happened. So far, all the candidates have defended their privacy against the digital voyeurs, and amateur film-makers have failed to post any explosive content that has successfully recast the election.
The digital tsunami hasn't happened, either. It's true that every candidate has been investing in new media to market themselves and distribute their messages online. It's also true that all the candidates have gone through the predictable motions of establishing a presence on fashionable social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and then scooping up hundreds of thousands of virtual "friends". But the political impact of this type of digital grandstanding is questionable – particularly as many of the kids on Facebook and MySpace aren't old enough to vote.
None of the major presidential candidates in 2008 is exclusively, or even decisively, an internet creation. In 2004, the prototype of this kind of revolutionary candidate was the former governor of Vermont Howard Dean, who raised millions of dollars and established himself as the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination almost exclusively through online organisation and fundraising.
In 2008, the closest version of Dean is the libertarian Republican Ron Paul who, in the fourth quarter of 2007, raised a hefty $20m online. But, while Paul's anti-governmental message and kooky conspiracy theories obviously resonated with many thousands of radical online activists, they haven't won the support of the mainstream American electorate. In spite of his online popularity, the eccentric Republican won 10 per cent of the votes in the Iowa caucus, 8 per cent of the votes in the New Hampshire primary and only 6 per cent in the Michigan primary.
The obituaries for mainstream media are ubiquitous on the net. This year was supposed to be the year that new media replaced mainstream media as the central political battleground for the candidates. The election, internet pundits predicted, would be fought in digital space, on the blogs and wikis and in virtual worlds such as Second Life.
But, again, this hasn't materialised. Most of the blogosphere is an echo-chamber of either uncompromisingly left- or right-wing opinion, and there's little evidence that bloggers have had a decisive impact on public opinion about the candidates.
By contrast, it has been the mainstream media's coverage – particularly the debates between candidates (including last year's excellent CNN/YouTube debates) – that has really shaped public opinion about the election.
And, of course, the most decisive media event so far of the 2008 election was Hillary Clinton's teary coffee-shop confession the weekend before the New Hampshire primary – a truly historic moment that was captured and endlessly broadcast on the traditional television networks and their websites.
While the undeniable message of the 2008 American election is that the voters want political change, it isn't clear that this change extends to the digitalisation of politics. So far in 2008, it's been traditional blood-and-guts politics – whether it's John McCain attending more than a hundred town-hall meetings in New Hampshire, or Barack Obama's uplifting oratorical skills in Iowa – that is determining the election's outcome.
That's the real surprise of 2008 so far – that US politics hasn't gone virtual and the digital media are failing to turn the American political system upside down.Reuse content