Web 2.0 Powers Political Campaigns - From Presidential Race to Local Elections

Candidates use blogs, video and online contributions to reach voters and raise cash.

by / July 29, 2008

The World Wide Web is often dubbed this generation's wild, Wild West. It's a raucous, freewheeling digital expanse rife with every vice imaginable. And like the frontier, the Web is a showcase for an emerging society with its own ideas, goals and morals.

In the pioneering days of yesteryear, men who chose to run for office often traveled the nation by train on whistle-stop tours. In the virtual Wild West, where sex and piracy are still kings, the wooly Web has nonetheless emerged as a pivotal theater in which candidates for office must battle.

The Web is both the small-town train depot and a platform for candidates to gain national exposure - even if the limelight is the last thing a candidate wants. Almost every modern office-seeker - regardless of the office sought - has taken advantage of the Web to some degree. On the national stage, the remaining candidates for U.S. president are investing millions of dollars in their digital campaigns. And on the local level, even city council candidates find that having a handle on Web trends, in particular Web 2.0, may mean the difference between being Wyatt Earp and staring down the business end of his pistol.

Grassroots Made Easy

As you may have heard, there are several people vying for the Oval Office. More than ever, the Web is a key component of the candidates' campaigns.

The Web has blossomed from a campaign novelty to an essential tool to reach voters. The difference during this election cycle for president is the advent of Web 2.0 applications; chief among these new applications are social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook and Flickr. By integrating these sites into their campaigns, presidential candidates create new avenues to reach voters.

Traditional campaign strategies - such as TV spots on broadcast networks - are labor- and cash-intensive and were consequently out of reach for most people who ran for local office. What makes Web 2.0 so attractive is that it's just as easy for a mayoral candidate to use as for a high-profile politician looking to move into the White House.

But for all the hoopla paid to campaigns and Web 2.0, one critical question remains: What exactly are candidates supposed to do with these tools? Barack Obama's Web site, for example, features 16 different links to social networking sites. Some of them are broadly known, such as Digg and LinkedIn. Others target specific demographics, such as FaithBase, BlackPlanet and AsianAve. Obama uses each of these sites to deliver a message tailored to a niche audience. The sites also serve as easy ways for voters to connect with the candidate and feel like they're part of the campaign.

John McCain's site, meanwhile, uses a different strategy. Instead of a roundup of social networking sites, McCain's team invested more heavily in blogs and video. His appearances on television can be easily accessed, and supporters can add videos to their blogs via a tool called McCain TV, where bloggers and webmasters copy a few lines of code into their own sites and help spread the candidate's video messages.

Another interactive feature common to both Obama and McCain is a widget that enables online donations. This is yet another tool that works just as well for the

national candidates as it does for aspiring city councilors.

Online fundraising itself has become a 2.0 application. ActBlue, for instance, is like MySpace for Democratic fundraising. Democratic candidates can add the ActBlue widget to their Web sites, and users can donate to campaigns with a few simple clicks. The ActBlue site keeps a tally of funds raised and is a hub for anyone seeking information about Democratic candidates. Since launching in 2004, ActBlue has brought more than $45 million to various Democratic campaigns nationwide.

The Republicans' answer to ActBlue is a similar application called Slatecard, where Republican candidates also can add an online donation widget to their campaign site. Like ActBlue, Slatecard acts as a meeting place for anyone seeking data on Republican candidates. Slatecard "social networkizes" online donations by tagging each participating candidate with several "issue badges" that tab issue positions. For example, the Slatecard page for Candidate X might include badges for Faith and Values, Defeat Radical Islam, Conservation of Resources and Support Our Veterans. In addition, a candidate's Slatecard page features links, if they exist, to the candidate's pages on social networking and video sites.

Open Facebook

If the advantage of Web 2.0-enabled campaigns is enhancing a candidate's ability to reach voters, then shouldn't every candidate do it, regardless of the position he or she is running for? Surprisingly many candidates - especially candidates for local office - still treat the Web as an afterthought, or worse, they don't think of it at all.

On the flip side, there are candidates of all ages from all walks of life running for office who use Web 2.0 as a tool to connect with voters and win. From city council races in Roanoke, Va., and Fresno, Calif., to campaigns for the Idaho Senate and the U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota, Web 2.0 is changing the local election process from top to bottom.


Fresno City Council
Michael Karbassi is making headlines in the local paper. The attention he's received doesn't only stem from the fact he's running for a city council seat; what interests people is that he's 24 years old. With a population of nearly 500,000, Fresno is the sixth-largest city in California, meaning a win for Karbassi would be an impressive achievement for the precocious, first-time politician.

Part of Karbassi's campaign strategy is to lean on his appeal to voters both young and old. Part of doing that is taking advantage of what the Web has to offer, Karbassi said.

"They say younger people, like myself, use Facebook and MySpace. That's all well and good, but a lot of people, even the older generation, know how to use the Internet a lot more. Young professionals are a big voting bloc as well," Karbassi said. "You can only knock on so many doors. The Web offers you a semi-personal way to communicate with a candidate and ask questions, and there are some important questions out there."

Karbassi's competitor, 34-year-old Andreas Borgeas, is also young by political standards. Neither candidate's site is as refined as a national candidate's, but both use video where and when they can.

Besides clips from the local news, Karbassi's site is home to his personal blog. While blogs certainly aren't new, his opponent doesn't have one, which could give Karbassi an upper hand in reaching voters.

"I think the ultimate question is: What differentiates the two candidates?" Karbassi said. "It's about issues and who the people are. The Web offers that opportunity because it gets the bio out and we get our issues out

there. There's an issues page; people can see where we stand. I know that on my page I actually have my stance on issues. The other candidate does not have a specific stance on issues. I have a blog; the other candidate does not. I do donations, the other person doesn't. Everyone has their own style. I just feel like the Web is a very important tool for getting information out to people."

Roanoke City Council
On the other side of the country, Roanoke, Va., residents just elected Court Rosen as first-term city councilman. Rosen bested incumbent Brian Wishneff in a race rife with controversy. A day after Rosen won by a narrow margin, The Roanoke Times revealed that Wishneff may have violated state election laws by using a false name to purchase advertisements attacking Rosen.

But before the results - and the scandal - became public, Rosen spoke about the role the Web played in his campaign.

"I've got a list of about 700 people, which is not a lot," he said. "But in the scheme of things, when you e-mail somebody and they forward the e-mail on, or they start talking to folks, it starts multiplying. I've been using e-mail to direct people to YouTube, where I've put all my campaign commercials for people to see. So while they may not see them on TV, everyone by and large these days has access to the Internet either at work or at home. By directing people to YouTube and asking them to forward it on, there's no telling how many folks have seen the ad."

Rosen's Web page is modest; in fact, it's just a blog on the BlogSpot network. Rosen shared his views and opinions on his blog and included a link to his Facebook site.

Rosen readily admitted he wasn't well known in the community when he decided to run for city council. That reality motivated him to enlarge his online network of associates by expanding his presence on Facebook.

"The Facebook page has been very useful," Rosen said. "There is a network, and so joining the network opens up my Facebook page to hundreds of people who then share it. These folks are sharing it with their friends."

But it isn't all sunshine and puppy dogs for Rosen. He believes older voters aren't going to connect to his campaign through the Web, hence the blog-based home page. He also said tech-savvy younger voters found him through Facebook, so he didn't need to invest donated funds into a high-end Web site.

"A lot of the older folks - the middle-aged to more elderly - aren't going to by and large go to my Web site anyway," he said. "So I just didn't think that there was a huge need for one given that the people who would get online and visit are as likely to go to my Facebook page or my blog."

Idaho State Senate
In Idaho's 14th District, professor and attorney Saundra McDavid is running for state Senate. McDavid once ran for mayor of Eagle, Idaho, but otherwise has no history as an elected official. But she has a background in technology and runs her own technology consulting firm in Eagle.

McDavid's Web site is as polished as any campaign site. Donations can be made online via credit card and PayPal. Her blog is frequently updated. She has links to voter registration forms and polling places. The site links to all recent news items about her campaign and local news video reports. And McDavid has both a MySpace and

Facebook page.

McDavid said the Web makes her campaign easier for voters to access, in terms of learning about where she stands on issues and giving people a simple way to contribute.

"It's important for all politicians to get their issues across to the people in their district," she said. "These types of Web tools are a great way to interact with the people who will be voting for you. The easier you make it for people to contribute, the more likely they are to contribute. With credit cards, if you give them that opportunity, more people will likely contribute than they would if they had to write a check."

As a technology consultant, McDavid said she's well aware that reaching younger voters means going beyond the scope of traditional campaigning, which is why she expanded her campaign to MySpace and Facebook. Initially these forays into social networking haven't generated much interest - only one visitor to her site has become a Facebook friend and no one has asked for friend status on MySpace as of press time. But McDavid is convinced her efforts to reach out to younger voters will pay off with time.

"The key to reaching the younger voters is to go online. That's their world," she said. "I have a lot of younger people contacting me that have said they viewed my site and like it. It was important to me to get as much information out to the voters as possible, so that they can know me and make an informed decision. You're not going to get from a flier in the mail the same kind of personal touch that you can get using the Web site, blogs and 2.0 technologies - where you are actually bringing your voters or people who are interested in hearing about you into your world."

The next step, McDavid said, is to post campaign videos on YouTube. The candidate hopes this will open more avenues for voters to connect with her campaign.

"You definitely don't want to give the message that you're not interested in interacting with your constituents," she said. "By allowing them to communicate with you [via the Web] it gives the impression that you are approachable and open-minded."

U.S. Senate, Minnesota
It makes sense that the higher up the political food chain, the more resources campaigns have. But the Web helps to level the playing field. Even though Minnesotan Norm Coleman's re-election bid for U.S. Senate includes a top-notch Web site, the candidate prominently features links to popular Web 2.0 applications, such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Flickr. Coleman also has links to newer applications such as Utterz - a tool allowing him to post voice, video and text to the Web via a mobile phone - and Sprout, an application that lets users embed Coleman-related news and video on their own sites with just a few mouse clicks.

Coleman's campaign manager, Cullen Sheehan, said these tools help the candidate reach people in new ways.

"Social networking tools and sites are a good opportunity to reach out to supporters with creative and innovative approaches to campaigning," Sheehan said. "There's no doubt the Web is influencing politics, and we've made a commitment to reflect that in our e-campaign. Between e-mail, text messaging, social networking and embedded video, we communicate with thousands of people every day. These are people that might not normally be exposed to information about Norm or about what's going on in the campaign, so it's having a tremendous impact."

Of course like any candidate, Coleman is after the elusive youth vote. Sheehan said she believes the effort being put into the Coleman e-campaign will resonate with the younger generation and

will encourage them to vote.

"Younger people see the energy we're creating via Web technology and are more likely to get involved. We hear all the time that creative Web videos and messaging are reaching more and more people as word spreads. Our goal is to take the next step in mixing Internet technology with campaigning. Given the feedback we get from supporters, members of the media and people who are new to politics, we're succeeding."

Perhaps the most important element that Web 2.0 brings to a campaign is the chance to paint a more intimate portrait of a candidate.

"Social networking sites, like our Facebook and MySpace pages, are geared not only to the issues and legislation that Norm fights for, but also to him as a person - information about him and his family that gives people a chance to learn more about him personally," Sheehan said. 

"Flickr is a sort of photo journal of the campaign thus far. People can look at Norm's travels around the state and what the campaign has been up to. Given its adaptable nature, YouTube might be the most powerful Internet tool we use. On our YouTube channel, we try to mix traditional messaging with creative Web videos that discuss issues affecting the campaign on a daily basis. The advent of the Web video as a viral tool has a daily effect on local and national campaigns."

Digital Democracy

Campaigns discussed here differ in size, scale, resources and goals, yet each shares a common element - the clever application of mostly free Web 2.0 tools to better reach voters.

None of these candidates are - or were - ensured victory simply because they were savvy enough to leverage the latest Web technology. Some Web 2.0 tools may have questionable usefulness, but most are delivering a considerable return on minimal investment.

Many people bemoan that snaring an elected office is too often prohibitively expensive. But Web 2.0 might just help put politics back within the reach of any citizen who wants to serve.

"Especially for a smaller campaign that may not budget for a lot of paid media, earned media via the Internet is a cost-effective way to garner serious attention," Sheehan said. "Put some energy into it, and you'll see a definite impact in terms of spreading your message and reaching out to more and more people."

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.