Election 2008: The Internet Campaign

Joe Trippi is rolling down I-95 toward Charleston, S.C., headed for a debate he could only have imagined four years ago. A senior adviser to the John Edwards presidential campaign, Trippi helped pioneer Web politics as Howard Dean’s campaign manager during the 2004 election. Now, though, Internet campaigning is mainstream. “No one’s laughing this time,” Trippi says. “There are all these amazing ways for people to connect with a campaign, to follow it, or create their own mini-campaigns, things that didn’t exist or barely existed last time.”

The July debate, carried live on CNN, featured questions for the Democratic contenders submitted to the YouTube video Web site by people across the country. Afterward, Edwards went online at his campaign site to answer questions sent in via social networking sites, text messages and the Twitter micro-blogging service. The other campaigns, including those of front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, covered the debate at their own sites.

Trippi believes this kind of technology will be a real difference-maker in the race for the White House, and that his party has a big lead in using it. “There is this amazing competition between the Democratic campaigns; nobody is giving an inch,” he says. “It’s going to lead to an explosive, powerful progressive community online for the general election, with millions of people connected and hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions. The major thrust is engaging voters, creating community around candidacy and getting people to be evangelists for the campaign. It could decide the election.”

But not everyone agrees on best uses of technology in politics, with differences often breaking down along party lines. As of early August, for example, leading GOP candidates, including Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were planning not to participate in a September CNN/YouTube debate similar to the Democratic event in Charleston, so that debate may be canceled.

Snubbing YouTube nation is a terrible idea, says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant who worked briefly this year for Giuliani, but he is less enthusiastic about social networks than many of his Democratic counterparts. “Having more Facebook friends won’t make you President,” he says. “It might tell you something about the enthusiasm of your supporters, but it’s just one metric.” The issue, he says, is perspective. “The emphasis, especially in the media, and to the exclusion of other technologies, is out of whack.”

A former online strategist for the Republican National Committee and Webmaster of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, Ruffini favors what he calls “a mid-tech approach” to campaigns and organizing. What really jazzes him is integrating older technology like phone, television or snail mail, things millions of people already use regularly, with an online approach. “You do it by improving upon existing media,” he says, pointing to the “Tele-Town Halls” run by the Mitt Romney campaign in Iowa. These conference calls involve perhaps thousands of people in that caucus universe, but when people on the call respond to prompts—pressing 1 to volunteer, for instance—their action is translated into ones and zeros that the campaign can store and use at will. Everyone is working on these kinds of approaches, Ruffini says, but “I think Republicans may be a little more attuned to it.”

Whatever their different emphases, campaigns in both parties are feeling their way toward the same big goal: close alignment of technology efforts with the mission of winning elections. “It’s a false dichotomy to divide campaign strategies into bottom-up versus top-down,” says Zack Exley, a Democratic consultant who was director of online communications and organizing for the Kerry-Edwards campaign after stints with Dean and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. Successful campaigns must build large communities and coordinate their activities, letting individuals act independently within the overall campaign strategy.

But technological and cultural obstacles remain. Nobody is sure precisely how social networks translate into votes (see sidebar). Getting candidates and senior staffers to buy fully into an Internet strategy can be a challenge, and some of the basic plumbing needed to integrate applications and share information across organizations is still in development. “A campaign should not be made up of segmented, vaguely competitive subgroups, but the technology hasn’t been there to help the campaign staff work with the field organization in a productive way,” says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, a partner at Blue State Digital, a software and consulting firm he co-founded with fellow Dean campaign veterans. “The most useful thing is not going to be a specific tool or product, but a model for operating with the tools out there and understanding the value of shared information.”

Even in a campaign that kicked off with a series of candidate announcements on the Web nearly two full years prior to Election Day, time is of the essence “It’s still an open question whether any campaign will run a truly well-organized Internet campaign on Feb. 5,” says Exley, referring to the early primary date shared by big states including California, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey. Franklin-Hodge expects to see “credible strategies and well-coordinated campaigns” emerge during this election cycle, but adds, “Nobody at any level has figured out what the optimum campaign even looks like. It’s a year of learning and experimentation.”

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