Part 1 of this three-part series focused on the Internet’s rise in importance on political campaigns, especially fund-raising. This part looks at how online campaigns are building on the fund-raising theme and making the sites more interactive.
The Home Front
Much fund-raising is also done on the candidates’ own pages, of course, although with varying degrees of emphasis. At John McCain’s site, fund-raising is a major focus, but again with a grassroots feel.
Visitors to the McCain home page are urged to do two things: 1) make a contribution, and 2) join McCain’s “team.” One of the benefits of being a McCain team member is the ability to create a personal Web page in what’s called “McCainSpace.” Holders of such pages can use them to fund-raise, as well as to connect with other supporters and stay up-to-date on the campaign’s progress.
“We are very pleased with our reception online,” Christian Ferry, the McCain national e-campaign director, told TechNewsWorld. “We have our own social networking space inside our own Web site, and right now it’s focused on recruiting people and fund-raising. Team members can track how much money their page is raising as well as how many people they’ve recruited.”
“Many thousands” have already set up pages on McCainSpace, Ferry said, and the site will add functionality as the campaign progresses, such as the ability to upload pictures and videos, or to maintain personal blogs.
The goal of McCain’s Internet presence is “to involve people in the campaign, and to spread the word for why McCain is the best candidate to be president of the United States,” Ferry said. “What we’re doing through this Web site is telling the John McCain story,” — his military career, experience in government and personal details such as his love for sports.
To wit: During the NCAA basketball tournament, McCain’s team posted his bracket with his picks. Visitors to the campaign Web page were then invited to fill out their own brackets and to track them against McCain’s and those of others who had submitted theirs online. Small prizes would then be awarded to the winners.
“It’s a fun way to involve people, but it also says something about McCain that you might not otherwise know,” Ferry explained. “You couldn’t really do that offline.”
Overall, Ferry believes the campaign’s Web presence makes possible a new level of involvement. “A Web site allows people to be involved in the campaign as an activist and a grassroots member of the team in a way they couldn’t otherwise unless they live in campaign headquarters or an early primary state,” Ferry said. “This way, you can open up a campaign office on everybody’s desk.”
Of course, people who visit a campaign’s own Web site are probably already fairly involved and receptive to the candidate’s message — it could be a matter of preaching to the converted, in some cases. But what about reaching the rest of the population?
“In 2004 you worried about one Web site — your own,” Eric Carbone, director of Internet operations for the Joe Biden campaign, told TechNewsWorld. “The trick was to get people to come to your Web site and to get the message you’re putting out. In 2008, we have to go to where people are.”
MySpace.com and Facebook.com are where many people spend time today so, not surprisingly, virtually all the presidential candidates now have set up a presence on at least one of them.
“Voters are demanding the candidates’ presence on social networking sites, so much so that many of the candidates’ profiles in these environments were created by supporters rather than the campaigners themselves,” said Michael Bassik, vice president of Internet advertising at political consulting firm MSHC Partners, which was the Internet advertising agency of record for John Kerry and the Democratic National Committee in 2004.
“These sites empower voters to have a much more personal relationship with the campaign than was ever possible before. Today, students organize rallies thousands-strong without any campaign help.”
Beyond the Numbers
Republican candidate Mitt Romney has the most MySpace friends of any official Republican, according to Stephen Smith, his campaign’s director of online communication, despite the fact that his profile has only been up a few weeks. On Facebook, Romney is a member of over 50 Facebook groups.
However, “it’s more than just a numbers game,” Smith cautions. What matters more is how the numbers turn into action, and that’s something the Romney campaign saw at work in March, when it was able to mobilize supporters in a Facebook group ahead of time for the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. “We were able to use Facebook to advance our objectives on the ground,” Smith explained. “They helped us win a conference poll, which got a lot of attention.”
How far Facebook or the other social networking sites can go for candidates remains to be seen, however. For example, “there has been an explosion on Facebook of groups in support of Obama, with more than 300,000 members,” Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, told TechNewsWorld.
“I think we’re beginning to see the clear limitations of these sites as an organizing platform — they’re not really designed for a giant community to do a lot,” he added. “It has been an interesting way for new people to come in and make a simple statement of support, however, and that’s significant by itself.”
The Price Is Right
Also significant is the fact that social networking sites, whatever their other worth, tend to result in media coverage for the candidates. “Use of the Internet is sexy and new, so of course the traditional media are covering candidates’ use of social networking,” Bassik explained. Using sites like MySpace “gives the impression that a candidate is not only embracing the Web from a policy standpoint, but also becoming an Internet candidate themselves in actuality.”
Then there’s also the fact that such coverage is priced reasonably — that is, it’s free. “The No. 1 reason why candidates are so quick to adapt campaigns to embrace Web 2.0 is that it’s free,” Bassik said. “Political campaigns are generally risk-averse, especially when it comes to spending precious campaign dollars on experimental media. These sites cost nothing to participate in, and they actually empower supporters to help.”
Video, Ergo Vote?
As the “Hillary 1984” video proved, a picture can be worth a thousand words, and for that reason video promises to be a defining tactic in the 2008 campaign. “There is a tremendous emphasis on video this year,” said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for The Institute for Politics Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University. While the McCain campaign has been particularly active in its use of video — it has an official channel on YouTube as well as on newcomer Veoh, according to Ferry — most of the other candidates now have some sort of video coverage as well.
“We’ve put out 30 videos of events, speeches, TV appearances and some homegrown things we’ve filmed ourselves,” said Carbone of the Biden campaign. “We bypass the normal news media when we do this, and people seem to love them.”
“YouTube and Web video are something we think is really important,” noted Smith of the Romney campaign. “We have something called Mitt TV on our campaign Web site, with eight different channels and 80 videos.”
Included among the selection are clips from news or opinion shows on TV — “we try to get the best of what’s on TV,” Smith said — as well as specially crafted, Web-exclusive mini-videos featuring interviews with key fund-raisers or political supporters.
Whereas an edited version might go up on Mitt TV, the extended, raw footage could be posted on YouTube, Smith said. “We’re not just interested in having something polished and edited,” he explained. “We want to make it clear we’re not hiding anything.”