Web Politics 2.0

It’s just before midnight on election night in Raleigh, N.C., and Erskine Bowles approaches the podium to address his supporters. The mood in the room is sober. Standing in front of a huge American flag, Bowles concedes that he has lost to Republican Richard Burr in a hard-fought race to represent North Carolina in the U.S. Senate. He thanks his supporters, and they chant his name. But the sense of what might have been is palpable.

In a state carried easily by George W. Bush, in a senate contest decided by less than 2 percent of the 3.3 million votes cast, Bowles needed every advantage he could find. One thing he had going for him was a superior online campaign, which brought in more than $500,000 in donations over the Web.

And perhaps more important, the low-cost Web campaign succeeded in sharing information with potential voters, and motivating volunteers, by using tools such as a Weblog, e-mail and online video. Though it’s hard to say if anything could have stemmed the Republican tide that Burr rode into office, the Bowles campaign clearly could have done more to exploit its online advantage.

“We started late, and it kept us from doing everything we could,” said Mathew Gross, as election night turned into the next day. A consultant who worked for the Bowles campaign as an Internet strategist, Gross had earlier served as director of Internet communications for Howard Dean’s groundbreaking online organization.

The Dean team set new standards for Web fund-raising and campaign organization, despite the fact the candidate himself ultimately failed to impress voters. Now, once again, Gross’s team was unable to chalk up the win.

Bowles was not the only candidate in the just-concluded election cycle to leverage the power of Web marketing. The 2004 election brought Web politics into the mainstream across the country. In the months after Dean showed how effective an online campaign can be at raising money, distributing information and organizing people, candidates for office at every level of government began making serious use of Web tools to market themselves.

From the Register of Deeds race in Guilford County, N.C., where victorious challenger Jeff Thigpen used a Weblog to tell voters how he’d modernize technology faster than the longtime incumbent, to the dozens of congressional and senate campaigns throughout the country that deployed blogs, e-mail broadcasts and event planning software, on up to the John Kerry presidential campaign’s $80 million haul from online fund-raising, Internet marketing of candidates made the leap from bleeding-edge to must-have. Yet in several high-profile races, superior online campaigning did not prove to be a decisive advantage. The potential for raising money and organizing supporters has been revealed, but the ultimate payoff, victory, remains elusive.

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