This year’s presidential battle has been compared to every election held in the 1960s - a generational faceoff that will decide the course of the nation and one that’s been shaped by the Internet in the same way television affected the contests four decades ago.
If the final result Tuesday is anything like what polls are predicting, 2008 may be closest to 1964, the last year deeply Republican red states such as Virginia and Indiana backed a Democrat for president.
“Forty-four years ago in 1964, when I was a 9-year-old boy, my parents took me down to the circle in downtown Indianapolis to see Lyndon Johnson come to town,” said Sen. Evan Bayh, Indiana Democrat, introducing Sen. Barack Obama at a recent rally in Indianapolis. “He was the last Democrat to carry the state of Indiana. I thought I’d bring my boys here today to see the next Democrat who is going to carry the state of Indiana.”
Every four years, the politicians tell voters it’s a seminal election. This year they could be right.
Just as the 1960s races were defined by television - the Kennedy-Nixon debate steered voters toward the younger and more telegenic candidate, and the violence outside the 1968 Democratic convention was beamed into voters’ homes - now a generation later it is the click of a mouse and a YouTube video that puts voters in the middle of the political debate.
On its face, that seems to auger well for Mr. Obama, the 47-year-old former community organizer who as a relative newcomer to Washington could become the nation’s first black president. He’s facing Republican nominee John McCain, a 72-year-old senator who served decades in the Navy and a quarter century in Congress.
Mr. Obama has harnessed the strength of the Internet, which helped him build a base of support across the globe and take him from little-known candidate to front-runner for Tuesday’s election.
The Web has shaped the race, from the Internet video that started it all by depicting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a 1984-style oppressor to Obamagirl to the shocking sermons of Mr. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Team Obama quickly mastered the Web campaign, using it to communicate directly with a growing group of fans and raising record sums of money from people willing to give $5.
Team Obama’s Internet group - dubbed “New Media” - was one factor in his defeat of Mrs. Clinton during the Democratic primary.
For his part, Mr. McCain has taken the slow-and-steady approach, building a campaign for the last decade, including his failed 2000 bid for his party’s nomination.
And despite joking about his own lack of technology savvy, his campaign has had some successes, including managing to mute criticism from conservative blogs by offering Mr. McCain up to them for regular conference calls and inviting them to join the candidate on the campaign trail.
In the general election, Mr. McCain fought back against Mr. Obama’s online dominance with “The One” - a satirical spoof Web video that compared Mr. Obama to Moses parting the Red Sea. He also released an ad arguing Mr. Obama was little more than an international celebrity, comparing the Democrat to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
On the strength of those two videos, Mr. McCain for a short period of time topped Mr. Obama in YouTube views.
But both men were swamped by Miss Hilton, who cut her own spoof Web video announcing that since she’d been dragged into the debate she might as well run for president on a platform combining both the McCain and Obama energy plans. She said when stacked up against someone from “the olden days” and “that other guy,” her appeal was obvious: “I’m just hot.”
Powered by attention from celebrity gossip sites and the like, her video has received about 8 million views.
Younger voters have organized on campuses, collected millions of e-mail addresses for text messaging and had key campaign video posted online at YouTube.
Yet despite the staggering efforts to reach Millennials in this year’s pivotal presidential election, will renewed efforts to “rock the vote” roll up record youth numbers at the polls?
“That’s the big question,” says Michael McDonald, a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University in Virginia, who is an expert on voting trends.
“During the primaries, we’ve seen much higher voter turnout rates than in 2004, so we have some clue that young people have voted this year. At least at this point, we know that they are registered, so the first part of the puzzle is in place,” he said. “We know it’s going to be higher than 2004 just because the levels of turnout will be up.”
While 20-something voters have historically failed to make an impact on presidential elections, both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have reached out to them using technology and touting the importance of voting in a hipper way.
“We’re pumped, excited and registered,” said Stephanie Young, 24, a spokeswoman for the Rock the Vote organization in Washington. “The candidates have learned how to speak young people’s language and have done an excellent job tapping into the youth voter movement.
“Young people communicate through social networking like Facebook and MySpace,” she said. “The candidates have reached down into the young people’s level and they are talking to them in terms that make it more understandable. I think that makes them feel appreciated and sought after and lets them know their votes have been wanted.”
Expectations for their votes are high. In January, Time magazine dubbed 2008 the year of the youth voter. With a Generation X candidate in Mr. Obama, and his endorsement by a number of musical stars and celebrities, including talk-show tycoon Oprah Winfrey, the political participation hype is at a fever pitch.
His opponent Mr. McCain has his own youthful running mate in 44-year-old Sarah Palin, who campaigned this last weekend with “The View” star Elisabeth Hasselbeck. She has become the College Republicans’ 30-something “It” girl for taking on her power-liberal castmates with her outspoken views from the right.
The 18-29 age group of voters “has become much more Democratic in its political leaning over the past decade,” said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center. “They have come of age politically during the second term of Bill Clinton’s administration or the Bush administration. Generational politics suggest that people are imprinted with how the political environment is when they first start paying attention for the first time. The Democratic tilt, which was apparent four years ago, is still looking largely to be that way this time.”
Current Pew polls show a 2-1 advantage for Mr. Obama over Mr. McCain among youth voters, he said.
Miss Hilton’s generation is having an effect on its elders.
Throughout the campaign, both regular voters and elected officials - Sens. Claire McCaskill, Bob Casey and Amy Klobuchar, to name a few - have said their children were the impetus for backing Mr. Obama.
In Wheeling, W.Va., near the Ohio border, after her college-age kids convinced her Mr. Obama was the right choice, Toni Brancazio took it into her own hands to form a community Obama group. The campaign wasn’t investing many resources into the state, because it seemed such a long shot.
“The excitement is there now,” she said, adding that even though she is unemployed she has delayed her job search to spend 10 hours every day in the Obama office, phone banking and knocking on doors because, “This is too important.”
Now, polls show Mr. Obama within single digits of Mr. McCain in the state as the economy becomes a bigger drag for the Republican ticket.
Carol Myers of Indianapolis was inspired by her college daughter, who had her mom go online to learn about the Illinois senator.
“I’m from the sixties generation and I haven’t really believed that anybody since then was open to that larger sense of everyone with a stake in the future,” she said.
She said Mr. Obama has become for young people what President Kennedy was for her age group: “I loved Kennedy, he was my hero.”
Democratic political strategist James Carville predicted recently that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s voters ages 18 to 29 would turn out on Tuesday. He believes Mr. Obama will win the presidency and for the Republicans, “there’s going to be nothing left standing.”
“The long term is there is not just a lost election here, there is a lost generation,” he said.
Mr. Obama has relied on old-fashioned organizing and YouTube generation energy to expand the electoral map, leaving Republicans facing what could be their worst showing since 1964, when Republican candidate Barry Goldwater won just 52 electoral votes.
Based on polls, Democrats are poised to make gains in Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, which have been solidly Republican for years.
And with Democrats having a near-total lock on the West Coast and Northeast, it could be the beginning of a very powerful political realignment. That’s a far cry from just four years ago, when Republicans were gleefully talking about the prospects of a “permanent majority.”
But the roots of 1964 produced the conservative movement that eventually gained control of the Republican Party, delivered two terms for President Reagan and, in the 1994 elections, control of Congress for the first time in two generations.
As much as it can help build a candidate, the Internet can also help fuel efforts to bring a candidate down, and some of the biggest moments of the 2008 campaign are thanks to the Internet.
Off the cuff, on the rope line or unbecoming remarks from both candidates - and their running mates - became Internet sensations long before they were picked up on television. The sermons by Mr. Obama’s controversial former pastor hit the Internet before television coverage pushed them into the race.
The debate question that sparked the most heated disagreement between Mr. Obama and both his Democratic and Republican rival - about meeting with leaders of rogue nations - came not from a journalist but from a regular citizen, submitted online for the July 2007 YouTube debate.
And even so-called “old media” has been making its mark online.
McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm was used in Democratic attack ads for weeks after telling The Washington Times during an editorial board meeting that was posted on the Internet that the country was facing a “mental recession” and that the United States was a “nation of whiners.”
Mr. Obama praised Ronald Reagan in an editorial board meeting with the Reno Gazette, prompting Mrs. Clinton to seize on him as someone who embraced Republican ideals.
Mr. McCain’s bristling interview with editors at the Des Moines Register, posted online, helped further the Democratic narrative that he was angry and erratic.
The vice-presidential nominees have not been immune.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s unflattering interview with CBS’ Katie Couric and ridiculing on Saturday Night Live were amplified on the Web, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been used in Republican attack ads after speaking off the cuff about coal on the rope line while a voter’s camera was rolling.
He also said at a fundraiser that Mr. Obama would be “tested” with a crisis if he is elected, and a reporter’s audio clip of the event quickly made its way to the Web and into a Republican ad.
That’s probably fitting for a man whose very selection as running mate was officially announced to the world through a telephone text message.