Is Obama's online success a good measure of his support?

It's not the Internet crowd he needs to worry about.

Published September 11, 2008 5:17PM (EDT)

It's almost impossible to not have a conversation with anyone I know these days about the election. For most of my upper-middle-class, highly educated, liberal Bay Area friends, the Palin pick was a shot across the bow that maybe the Democrats wouldn't pull this one out. (I'm still optimistic.) But I'm the first one to recognize that I live in one of the bluest of the blue areas of the country. My neighborhood is littered with Obama signs and bumper stickers (Full disclosure: I have one on my Corolla). In other words, I know that the Bay Area is hardly representative of the political views across the country. I read the news, I see the polls. It's basically a dead heat right now.

But if you're gunning for Obama, it's easy to coast on the idea that Obama is doing better than he actually might be.

Let's take online presence, for example. It's been well-documented that Obama has been able to raise unprecedented amounts of money online, largely through many, many small donations. It's also been shown that Obama is selling more ads online, and his online traffic is well outpacing that of McCain.

As the Boston Globe reported:

The poll numbers may be inconclusive, but John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as running mate gave him one measurable boost: in web traffic. According to Nielsen Online, traffic to McCain's campaign website increased 242 percent during the week he named Palin to the GOP ticket. On the week ending August 31, McCain's site drew nearly 1.8 million unique visitors, compared to 524,000 the week before.

Obama's web traffic still vastly outpaced McCain's that week, boosted by the Democratic National Convention. For the week ending August 31, Obama's site drew about 3.4 million viewers, compared to 2.6 million the week before.

But let's take things one step at a time. Online ads, I'd guess, largely are preaching to the choir. Pew's most recent data on Internet users shows that those of us online skew toward the better educated, wealthier and younger. And guess what? Those groups tend to skew Democrat, and especially toward Obama.

Further, I'm not convinced that online traffic actually measures a whole lot on the political front. Again, I'm going to guess that most people visiting Obama's site agree with him and are using the site to donate (probably repeatedly) to the campaign, to check out local meetup events or, my favorite, to download Obama ringtones. (No joke.)

Now, another item that's gotten a lot of attention as of late is online customized T-shirt sites like Zazzle and Café Press. Just two weeks ago, NPR's "On the Media" interviewed Fred Durham, the founder of Café Press.

Durham stated what we'd all suspected (that there are more Obama shirts than McCain), and said that the rally around Obama bodes well for him. Then he argued that it's more representative than you might think:

BOB GARFIELD: Now, does this augur poorly for John McCain or is this just sort of a demographic quirk, Obama's audience overlapping with the message t-shirt-wearing audience?

FRED DURHAM: If this was our first election, I may think maybe it’s a demographic issue. This is our -- the third election we've been through. George Bush merchandise was very hot during the previous election. So unless George Bush skewed young and hip, which I don't think was the case, then that argument doesn't take hold.

When we still had Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee, t-shirt sales were much closer to neck and neck. Every time one of the alternative Republican voices dropped off, the sale didn't go to McCain, but Obama's grew by just about the exact amount.

The trends we've seen make kind of the t-shirt polls a very telling, perhaps even better than standard poll, view of what’s really happening and where the elections are headed.

BOB GARFIELD: Hm, I've just got to challenge you on that. Are you serious or just being glib when you say “better than a traditional poll”?

FRED DURHAM: Just like product research, asking people what they think of products, is a poor predictor of what people are actually going to buy, what we find with t-shirts, these aren't your average people at home. These are the enthusiasts who are definitely going to show up and pull the pull lever. The election’s not about the mood of the nation. It’s about those who actually get out and vote.

Eh, I don't buy Durham's argument. I don't think that those who were voting Huckabee and buying T-shirts were necessarily going to Obama, but rather that as the election progressed, interest in him grew. Further, I would also guess that Obama sales in 2008 are far outpacing Bush sales in 2004.

Still, though, there is one element that gives me hope about Obama's candidacy from a tech angle, and that's the notion that some of Obama's cellphone-only supporters are being undercounted in national polling.

Last year, Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, noted this phenomenon:

Twenty years ago the survey research profession -- having grown comfortable with telephone interviewing as an alternative to personal interviewing for conducting surveys -- worried mostly about the roughly 7% of U.S. households that could not be interviewed because they had no telephone. Today our concern is somewhat different, and potentially more serious. According to government statistics released last month, nearly 13% of U.S. households (12.8%) cannot now be reached by the typical telephone survey because they have only a cell phone and no landline telephone.

If people who can only be reached by cell phone were just like those with landlines, their absence from surveys would not create a problem for polling. But cell-only adults are very different. The National Health Interview Survey found them to be much younger, more likely to be African American or Hispanic, less likely to be married, and less likely to be a homeowner than adults with landline telephones. These demographic characteristics are correlated with a wide range of social and political behaviors.

A more updated version from July 2008 found that among cellphone-only voters, Obama is beating McCain by 61 to 32, and that when the cell and standard land-line samples were combined, Obama was up 48 to 40. But then again, Pew's own data has a smaller sample size for the cellphone voters. (I've got a query in to Pew to ask about the methodology of this study.) So maybe there's hope after all.

By Cyrus Farivar

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