How the Web is changing election campaigns

Internet sites used to be purely informational. Now they're for rousing activists.

Ohio Governor Bob Taft is not a duck, but his opponent Democrat gubernatorial candidate Tim Hagan would certainly like voters to think of him that way. In Hagan's ads Taft is portrayed as a candidate who ducks questions on key issues. Thus, in an animated ad, Taft's head is tacked on to a duck's body, and at a press conference can only utter the words "Duck" and "Taftquack" in response to questions by reporters.

The ad itself, though goofily funny, is not exactly groundbreaking. Humor in political ads has a long and occasionally disreputable history. What is new is where the ad is airing: 24 hours a day on Taftquack.com. Unable to afford expensive TV ad buys, the Hagan for Governor Committee has bought ads on AOL and airs commercials on the website.

Taftquack.com is just one of is just one of many campaign websites that show e-campaigning has entered a new phase in 2002. While the web was once the province of the cybersavvy politico, it is now a critical part of any candidate's strategy. And it is about more than just humor. Every single Democratic gubernatorial candidate has a website in 2002, as do 92 percent of Republicans with dreams of the governor's mansion.

But the real difference this year in not just how many candidates are reaching out through the medium, but how. Increasingly the goal is not just to inform citizens, but to engage them as participants in the campaign.

"What we're seeing now the long-term trend on the web is going to be toward mobilizing supporters, not to the exclusion of persuasion, but perhaps as the more dominant feature," says Kirsten Foot, a professor of communication at the University of Washington and one of people behind politicalweb.info, a site that tracks the web's role in politics.

Integrated part of campaigns

In 2002, the candidates' sites have become ways to gather donations, get voters registered, and, perhaps most imaginatively, use supporters as an early warning network to shoot down rumors and track negative ads. When supporters hear something negative on a talk show, or see an attack ad, they can alert the campaign office via e-mail.

Ben Green, cofounder of Crossroad Strategies, an Internet consulting firm in Washington, D.C., says there has been "a big evolution in this cycle in particular." For serious campaigns, he says, the web has become more than just another way of reaching out to voters, like direct mail or television ads, but rather an integrated part of the campaign. And in good campaigns, the web staff has a voice.

The change was spurred in part by the success on Sen. John McCain's

presidential run in 2000, which raised thousands of dollars on the Web and used the technology as way to work with a support base that otherwise would have been hard for a campaign with limited resources to reach.

Partisan website visitors

As the Web has matured it has become clearer that the medium, while broad in reach – more than 150 million use the Internet – is in many ways more fragmented than other media.

Visiting a campaign website is a choice, which means, by definition, most of those people clicking on to that site don't need as much convincing.

In attempts to be more interactive, however, there are hazards. Earlier this year, California Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones's website was briefly shut down by his Internet provider because the provider considered a mass e-mail the candidate sent to about 1 million people to be spam.

California is one of the few states with an antispamming law and while Jones's e-mail was technically legal, it infuriated many.

Experts, however, say that Jones's experience is an example of how not to engage voters. The whole point of the websites is to get beyond mass e-mailings, they say, to tailoring them to specific groups, regions, or ZIP codes.

There are, of course, candidates who are still trying to use the web in more novel ways, much in the way that Ohio's Tim Hagan is using his multiple duck-themed ads to lambaste his opponent.

Of course, the web still has a place for other political high jinks as well. Clicking by the website www.txdemocrats.org, for instance, may take you to the Texas Democrats, but www.txdemocrats.com delivers you straight to the Republican Party of Texas.

Reaching more than the party faithful

The true test for Web campaigning, consultants say, is when and if candidates can get beyond the dedicated few who come to a website to volunteer and begin to persuade. For that to happen, campaigns have to make the Web a serious part of the campaign and not simply an area for techno geeks.

"Most campaigns are still at the 'Field of Dreams' stage, they think, 'Build it and they will come,' " says Larry Purpuro, managing director of the consulting firm RightClick Strategies.

"That won't work. McCain succeeded because he has his [Web address] on every podium he spoke from and he always told people to go his site. Most candidates simply aren't doing that."

When they do, Purpuro says, Web campaigning will reach the next level.

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