American voters go to the polls next month to elect a new president, but a clear winner has already emerged -- the internet.
The World Wide Web has transformed how candidates speak to voters, revolutionised fundraising and ended the domination of traditional media.
Ordinary citizens are back in the game for the first time in decades, promoting causes and holding politicians' feet to the fire with a click of the mouse.
"The consequences are profound and they may ultimately impact not only democracy itself, but also governance and how we make decisions collectively in the 21st century," Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum told the Irish Independent.
Last year, seven of the 16 presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, announced their intention to run for the presidency not at crowded outdoor rallies, but in slick online presentations.
Using social-networking tools on the internet, candidates broke all previous records for fundraising. Instead of expensive parties for the mega-rich, Ron Paul, a Republican candidate raised $6m in one day through the internet.
In June, Barack Obama harnessed the web to help him raise a stunning $52m, of which $31m came from modest donations of $200 or less.
With an unprecedented number of Americans now online, and with a massive array of political websites to choose from, the internet sometimes overshadows television and newspapers, long the traditional source of news.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, about 40pc of all Americans now get their campaign news from the internet.
"You start to realise that the entire political media ecology is shifted around the internet as the centre of the process," said Rasiej, whose organisation explores how technology is changing politics. "The mainstream media now use the internet to follow the campaign themselves."
But it is perhaps the video- sharing website, YouTube, that has had the greatest impact on the presidential election.
The website that allows anybody with a mobile phone or camera to post a video, YouTube has turned the old model of television advertising -- and political propaganda -- upside down. The videos come from the top down -- from political parties and candidates -- but also from the bottom up, with ordinary voters posting their own footage.
"I would argue that YouTube should be declared the winner in this election because it has single-handedly become the primary platform for political discourse," said Rasiej.
The site allows candidates to release information quickly and in more detail than they would be able to on television, says Josh Harkinson who covers politics and the internet for Mother Jones magazine.
In July, Republican presidential candidate John McCain released an anti-Obama ad on YouTube that compared the Illinois Senator to Hollywood celebrities Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
Within days, it had been viewed over two million times and become headline news. A bikini-clad Paris Hilton released a pithy video in response -- "Thanks for the endorsement, white-haired dude".
"YouTube really is a fundamentally new way to campaign and it's having an impact on the election right now in a pretty broad and deep way," Harkinson told the Irish Independent.
Both candidates have their own YouTube channels. To date, Obama's videos have been viewed at least 52 million times while McCain's channel has had over nine million hits.
On the social networking site Facebook, Obama wins the popularity stakes with over two million 'friends' to McCain's 558,737. On MySpace, Obama leads with over 650,000 supporters to McCain's 156,088.
The 72-year-old McCain has often been mocked by critics for his own admission that he is a technological "illiterate" who relies on his wife to help him operate a computer.
But YouTube can hurt. as much as it can ...can help.
Off-hand remarks and embarrassing gaffes made out of the earshot of the conventional new media can now be picked up by anyone with a mobile phone and posted online within minutes.
A Republican senator in Virginia, George Allen, was caught on tape two years ago referring to a young Indian man as a "macaca" -- a racial slur that helped him lose his seat in a close election.
The silver-tongued Obama tends to choose his words carefully, but one slip-up has cost him dearly.
At a private fundraising eventin California that was supposed to be closed to reporters, a stealth blogger recorded the Illinois senator saying working-class voters in Pennsylvania were "bitter" people who "cling to guns and religion".
"We've seen the things that candidates said in environments that they thought were in private and that really came back to haunt them," said Harkinson.
YouTube appeals to an electorate that increasingly prefers the visual over the written word.
Rachel Geragos (20), a public relations student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said she relies on YouTube to catch up on campaign news, including interviews with the main candidates.
"I really like video as opposed to reading a transcript because I like to see the visual," she said. "I like to see the actual interaction between the two parties and the two candidates. YouTube is very user-friendly. It's kind of idiot proof."
But the video-sharing site is not just for the young at heart. On a recent trip home, Andrew Rasiej's 82-year-old father asked his son to show him how to send an email to more than one person.
"I looked at what my father was sending," said Rasiej. "And he was sending an email that said simply, "Watch this," with a link to the Obama video about race on YouTube."
In previous decades, Rasiej said, his dad wouldn't have picked up the phone to call 50 friends to tell them to watch Barack Obama on television.
Now, with a simple click of a button, his father was able to get his political message across to the people that mattered.
"So my dad has become, in his poor technologically skilled way, a 21st-century political pamphleteer," he said.
Multiply this one tiny example by millions of more internet-savvy citizens, said Rasiej, and you get an idea of the immense power of the internet in mobilising political opinion in this election cycle -- which the candidates hope will translate into votes come November 4.
"Remember, the holy grail of all online political organising is converting online enthusiasm into actual action or votes," he said.
The Obama campaign has got high marks for grasping the power of the web in all its forms and experts say it could put him over the top on election day. His staff includes young veterans from Silicon Valley, including Chris Hughes, founder of Facebook.
The internet and YouTube has helped spread support for Obama, creating a network of supporters -- what cyber experts call a "community" -- who can then be called upon for efforts to raise campaign cash, register new voters and ensure people go to the polls on election day.
His rival McCain and the Republican party have tended to lag behind.
"If Barack Obama is elected, I think that it can be very successfully argued that the internet was the deciding factor in this election," Rasiej said.