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Presidential candidates compete for friends online

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Presidential candidates are competing for friends on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Barack Obama may be second in the polls, but he's killing the competition in the race for friends on MySpace. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Philip Clearly, a 24-year-old law student, takes a break from his reading to add Hillary Clinton as his new friend on Facebook.com. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Philip Cleary, a Hillary Clinton supporter, takes a break from his law school reading to read up on his favorite candidate's profile at Facebook.com. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Candidates hoping to connect with young voters are competing for friends on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Philip Cleary takes a break from his law school reading to check out his favorite presidential candidate's profile at Facebook.com. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

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Barack Obama is trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls, but he's killing the competition in the race for friends on MySpace. (Andrew Goldberg/CNS)

Most of Philip Cleary’s 75 friends on the social-networking site Facebook.com fit a similar profile: recent college graduates who still listen to Nirvana and spend too much time posting pictures of themselves online.

But the latest addition to his buddy list has to be a bit more careful about her online image. Like the rest of his friends, she too attended an elite college in the Northeast, but she also happens to be a senator who is running for president of the United States.

“It only takes seconds for candidates to establish a presence on social-networking sites,” said Cleary, a 24-year-old student at Brooklyn Law School. “It’s necessary now because all the candidates are doing it, and it’s effective because it creates the appearance of connecting with voters.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton may be ahead of Democratic rival Barack Obama in almost every national poll, but the junior senator from New York is still trailing in one highly charged and potentially telling new race: the fight for friends on MySpace.

At first glance the battle for online buddies may seem somewhat trivial, but it has taken on renewed importance with the announcement that MySpace plans to hold the first virtual presidential primary. Before voters cast their ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire next year, MySpace users will be able to select their favorite candidates in an online election scheduled for Jan. 1-2.

TechPresident, a Web site that parses presidential candidates’ Internet strategies and publishes a daily digest of developments in their online campaigns, tallies candidates’ MySpace friends. The results, which are updated every fours hours and featured prominently on the site's homepage, show Obama trouncing Clinton 92,274 to 33,370 on a recent night. John Edwards, who has ranked third in most polls, also lags behind Obama and Clinton on MySpace with slightly more than 17,000 friends.

“I think it has to do with the demographics that are online,” said Joshua Levy, who helped launch TechPresident and is hoping to add a tally of candidates’ Facebook friends soon. “There are younger people online, especially using these services, and they tend to favor Barack Obama.”

At this early stage of the race, candidates who used to be content with drawing the biggest crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire are now vying for the most page views for their online campaigns. And that’s led to the rise of a new breed of strategists who are spinning MySpace numbers and getting campaigns to adopt new Web tools and tactics.

On the Republican side, Ron Paul, a long-shot presidential hopeful and Libertarian-leaning GOP congressman from Texas, boasts 5,187 MySpace friends, slightly less than Republican favorites Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain combined. Mitt Romney is second among Republicans with 2,728 friends.

“We don’t know if there are more Democrats online, and I would have to say that I don’t think that there are,” Levy said, “but I think there are probably more Democrats hanging out on Facebook, on MySpace and on YouTube than there are Republicans. Democrats have been the opposition party for many years, until recently, and they have been more savvy about getting their Internet operations together.”

David All, a political strategist, bills himself as “the first Republican Web 2.0 consultant.”

“I help campaigns create YouTube videos, show them how to build MySpace pages effectively and set up Facebook groups,” All said. “The goal is to build for them a Web site which is not an online flier but is more like an aquarium--something that is living and breathing that you have to interact with and pay attention to all the time.”

Obama and Romney seem convinced that sharing their favorite books and bands on social-networking sites will help them connect with young voters, but other candidates still see their profiles as more of an extension of their direct-mail campaigns. After all, MySpace’s newly launched Impact channel, which links all the candidates’ official profiles, now makes donating to a campaign a one-click process.

Some candidates, eager to raise their visibility online, are already looking beyond Facebook and MySpace. Obama recently unveiled his own social-networking site called MyBarackObama.com, where users can plan campaign events and more than 4,000 supporters have already started their own blogs.

Not to be outdone, Edwards opened an account at Twitter, a popular new Web 2.0 site built around text messaging, where users spend hours each day updating one another about what they’re doing. His campaign was also the first to establish a headquarters in "Second Life," a virtual reality video game where virtual volunteers hand out Edwards T-shirts and educate players about the senator’s record.

In addition to keeping a constant count of candidates’ MySpace friends, TechPresident is also tracking the number of viewers for candidates’ videos on YouTube. On March 1, YouTube launched YouChoose ’08, a new forum for political videos divided into channels for each candidate. So far, Obama has crushed Clinton, registering more than 2,700,000 views to Clinton’s nearly 95,000. Giuliani leads Republicans with close to 60,000 views, but all the Republican contenders combined don’t come close to competing with Obama’s numbers.

TechPresident warns that Obama’s staggering numbers may be misleading and should be taken “with a large grain of salt.” “We believe that YouTube's channel view stats may have been corrupted by efforts to game their statistics,” TechPresident said in a recent post on the site.

“One thing that people learned from Howard Dean is that online enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily translate at all into actual votes,” Levy said.

E-mail: asg2157@columbia.edu