Web Politics 2.0

By Edward Cone

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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Despite the political disappointment, Web marketing can teach business something about viral strategies, grassroots organizing and the directing of offline behavior. The challenges of a Web marketing campaign are often cultural, not technical, and the returns can be hard to measure. But as marketing of all kinds assimilates to the Web, companies will have to heed the lessons learned by political campaigns.

"We are already doing business with small and large companies, and getting inquiries from household names in the corporate world," says Nicco Mele, chief executive of EchoDitto Inc., a Web design and consulting firm that worked this year for Senator-elect Barack Obama of Illinois. "The Web lets you recognize that your customers are powerful people, and companies can use the Web to give them a place at the table," says Mele, who previously served as webmaster for the Dean campaign.

Online campaigns—for politicians or products—allow a level of interactivity and user participation that traditional strategies cannot provide. "Effective political Web sites provide a menu of tools that constituents can use to be active and exercise their energy, and expand the reach of candidates and issues they support," says Larry Biddle, another former Dean campaign aide who served as deputy manager of Florida Democrat Betty Castor's aggressively wired senate campaign. Castor raised about $800,000 online, and used an "Action Central" page at her busy BettyNet.com site to anchor a statewide network of volunteers. She lost narrowly to Mel Martinez, but did win a tough Democratic primary and throw a serious scare into her favored GOP opponent.

"Most candidate Web sites only present the candidate in a one-way dimension," says Biddle. "The Web is two-way, and provides updates on activities. It puts lots of needed energy in the political process. Online communities let people not just support the candidate, but be active in their support—becoming an extension of the political process beyond the candidate."

Clearly, online campaigning is in its early days. "The Internet is still not the be-all, end-all of campaigns," said Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, a political consultant who runs the popular Daily Kos Weblog, a political analysis and commentary site that averages over 500,000 page-views per day. "But those who make good use of the tools can better fund-raise, organize volunteers and garner the support of the blogs and other online partisan sites than those who compete in the analog world alone."

For Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker who served as White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton, and lost in the 2002 senate race to Republican Elizabeth Dole, the Web was integrated into an overall campaign strategy in a race where every small advantage counted. His contest with Burr for the seat vacated by vice-presidential candidate John Edwards pitted Bowles against a popular five-term congressman from Winston-Salem; and Burr started with a substantial lead in funding. For months, the two men ran a civil and substantive race. Then they spent a few weeks spraying mud at each other ("Clinton lover!" "Tool of special interests!"). But when the voting was done, the nation's tenth most-populous state chose Burr as its new senator.

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In the 2004 general election, U.S. Senate campaigns emerged at the hot center of online campaigning. The presidential campaigns, post-Dean, played things safe on the Web. Kerry and his managers followed Dean's lead by allowing reader comments to be posted at his Weblog. Bush essentially published press releases and called it a blog. Online, at least, both teams seemed to be playing not to lose.

But senate races became a proving ground for the next phase of Web politics. Statewide elections are big enough to leverage the economies of scale provided by the Web, but small enough that just a few volunteers make a difference. "The Internet may be most powerful at the local level," says Mele. "It lets groups without a big institution behind them communicate freely." At least a dozen major-party candidates for the senate had Weblogs, most of them Democrats. Reflecting the dynamics at work in the presidential campaign, Democratic candidates for the senate were somewhat more focused on grassroots outreach via Weblogs, while GOP candidates aimed more at organizational tools, such as lists of local party officials.

In Florida, Castor ran one of the nation's most active online campaigns in her unsuccessful race. Her BettyNet.com site organized hundreds of volunteers across the state by using tools such as event-planning software provided as a Web service by Meetup.com, and it also helped supporters to write e-mails and letters to the editors of local papers. The site even encouraged volunteers to "adopt" other Florida voters in order to communicate with them and urge them to vote early.

In a political climate where candidates fear making gaffes that can then be seized upon by their opposition and the media, the relative freedom of Web culture makes a lot of people nervous. The Kerry campaign took down its links to all external blogs when it felt the political risks of guilt by association were too great. But U.S. Senate candidate from Oklahoma, Democrat Brad Carson, did something different when confronted by the National Republican Senatorial Committee over linking to sites, including Daily Kos, which had published offensive remarks about some contractors killed in Iraq. "If you are one of my supporters, please read a varied list of sources, both liberal and conservative, so that you can better understand the world around you," the candidate wrote at his campaign blog. "If you are one of the NRSC's kind of folks, only read material that reinforces your political perspective." After drawing surprisingly close in the pre-election polls, the longshot Carson lost amid a Republican rout in Oklahoma.

At least one senate candidate faced a technical issue that other campaigns would have loved: huge spikes in traffic as people flocked to the site. When Barack Obama gave his star-making speech at the Democratic National Convention, traffic jumped to about 250 hits per second. "People felt they were speaking directly to him," says Rick Klau, a consultant to the Obama campaign. "And every time a network replayed a piece of the speech, there was another onslaught of hits. There were thousands of comments in a day." For Obama, who cruised to an easy victory over Republican Alan Keyes, the real impact of his Web constituency could come after he takes office. "This will help raise him beyond the status of a typical rookie senator. It gives him a national base," says Klau. "The first time he sits across the table from someone representing another state, and that senator realizes that Obama has more e-mails from his colleague's state than he does—that's going to be an interesting moment."

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The Bowles campaign got serious online because Erskine Bowles, a BlackBerry-toting policy wonk, wanted it that way. "I believe the Internet can connect people to the political process in a completely new and exciting way," the candidate said in July, and he took a personal interest in making it happen. Yet, even as Bowles was urging his campaign staff to pursue an active Web strategy, a certain amount of inertia on the part of the old-school political operatives he employed had to be overcome. Clearly the Bowles team could have run a more timely and effective online campaign.

Communications Director Susan Lagana and Campaign Manager Guy Cecil did not move quickly to adopt an up-to-date Internet strategy. Months passed after Bowles first expressed his interest in an aggressive online campaign to Lagana—in late 2003—before a serious Web strategy was finally defined at his Raleigh headquarters. Mathew Gross, the campaign's Internet strategist, first interviewed with the campaign in April of 2004, and he wasn't hired until June.

The late start hurt the online campaign. "You need time to build a community," Gross says. "There are a limited number of techniques to spur growth in readership and response, and time is one of the things that you know can help you do that." But once the Web campaign got rolling, it got results in a hurry. The first thing Gross did was send out a fund-raising e-mail to addresses Bowles had gathered during his previous campaign, and over the preceding months. It worked. In the last three days of the second quarter, Bowles raised as much cash online as he had in the previous 87 days, for a total of about $70,000. "Just asking is an important first step," says Gross, who joined the Dean campaign last March, and whose previous gigs include environmental activist and drummer for an indie-rock band.

The campaign Weblog launched in July, just three months before the election. It gave the Bowles brain trust its own media outlet for text, audio and video, which allowed the campaign to publish material on its own schedule. Bowles no longer had to rely solely on ads and wait for coverage from local papers and television outlets, which often pay only sporadic attention to most elections. The blog helped publicize a summer bus tour that Bowles made across the state, generating some early momentum and buzz. But then the blog lost steam. "Once the excitement of the bus tour faded, attention to the blog was less intense," says Gross. "The campaign never identified that one blog contributor who was passionate about it, a writer who thought this was the cat's meow, someone who would come in early or stay late to write online—and you need that kind of focus, because a blog is ultimately a human voice."

Online fund-raising was important to the Bowles campaign, which started the year with barely one-third of the $5.9 million raised by Burr as of January 1, 2004.

In the third quarter (ended September 30), Bowles had raised over $210,000 online, much of that coming from small donors who gave an average of just over $100 each. The end-of-quarter push was promoted breathlessly on the campaign blog, which ran images of a big red balloon expanding as more money came in, and via e-mail requests for funds. Ultimately, Bowles raised more than $9 million for the campaign, as opposed to Burr's $11 million.

Over time, the main campaign Web page grew more blog-like. Rather than posting a static page, the Bowles team gave the site frequent updates and provided links to campaign ads and volunteer information. The entire Web presence was shifted to a popular Weblog software package called Movable Type, from San Mateo, Ca.-based vendor Six Apart Ltd., which allowed any user with a password to update the page. "That removed one of the key bottlenecks of a flat HTML page, where you have to wait for an administrator to change something," says Gross.

A variety of in-depth information was made available online—"the campaign beneath the sound bites," Gross calls it. There were online communities that allowed supporters to connect with people with similar interests, such as Entrepreneurs for Bowles, Veterans for Bowles and so on; issue-oriented pages with detailed plans for jobs, healthcare, and other hot topics; and a site called "The Truth About Burr" that was dedicated to trashing the opponent for his alleged close ties to special interests.

Burr's home page, too, was getting bloggier, with links to his TV ads and more frequent news updates. The Republican even launched a site called Blog 4 Burr, aimed at college students, although it drew limited traffic and almost no comments. But Burr's campaign was not focused on creating a breakthrough Web presence. The strength of their Web effort, said Burr campaign spokesman Doug Heye, was an e-mail list of over 100,000 names, which allowed the candidate to contact supporters easily.

E-mail was important to the Bowles campaign as well. It may not be glamorous, but it is a vital component of an integrated Web strategy, a critical way of communicating with supporters and tying other elements of the campaign together. "You get people involved, you make them feel that they are part of the campaign, by asking them to forward an e-mail," says Gross. Buying names is not an effective way to build an e-mail list, he adds, noting that organic growth more than doubled the campaign's e-mail roster in the months after he came on board. "An e-mail from the campaign announcing a new ad leads to a spike in traffic at the Web site," he says. E-mail was also important in targeting the volunteers to reach out to undecided voters whom campaign manager Cecil identified as a key to the race, and in getting volunteers to perform tasks like working phones and polls.

Bowles also made use of Web advertising, including ads that ran on local and national political Weblogs. Here, the senate campaign was well ahead of the presidential contenders. A study by the Pew Research Center, an independent media research group, showed that Bush and Kerry spent about 100 times more on television ads than they did on Web advertising, and that the Web advertising they did use tended to be old-school banner ads. Bowles used banner ads at three high-traffic North Carolina news Web sites during the last week of the campaign, but mostly relied on keyword driven Google ads, along with spots placed on Weblogs from the innovative Chapel Hill firm BlogAds. "The banner ads cost as much as three dollars per thousand impressions," says BlogAds founder Henry Copeland. "Our customers are spending more like 50 cents per thousand, and reaching a more interested audience."

Gross says the blog ads worked. "We were able to respond quickly online when the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced plans to pour millions of dollars into Burr's campaign," says Gross. A series of ads on political Weblogs, warning that the national organization was trying to "buy North Carolina," paid for itself quickly with the money it raised.

By October, attack ads for the two candidates were running one after another on television. The Bowles blog began its barrage of detailed attacks on Burr's record as a congressman. In the final week of the race, the blog, and blog advertising, reverted to presenting a positive image of Bowles amid the negative posts. A key to the North Carolina strategy, says Gross, was understanding the market. He didn't use tools like the Meetup event-planning service or software that organized local house parties, because the county organizations were already local. "There are times when it makes more sense to use the phone," he says. "You've got to recognize that it's not about the Web, it's about integrating the Web into an overall campaign organization."

On election night, Gross considered the role of the online strategy in the unsuccessful Bowles campaign. "What we did worked well," he said. "On a day when Bush won the way he did here, I don't know if anything we did online would have made a difference."

Blog the vote
More than a dozen candidates for the U.S.Senate, most of them Democrats, used Weblogs in the 2004 campaign. Here's a rundown of how they fared, online and at the polls.

ERSKINE BOWLES D NC Candidate's personal interest led to online strategy LOST
BRAD CARSON D OK Refused to drop links to controversial sites LOST
BETTY CASTOR D FL Most comprehensive online strategy in nation LOST
TOM DASCHLE D SD Frequent posts and lots of info at minority leader 's site LOST
JOE HOEFFEL D PA Ambitious $1 million online fund-raising goal LOST
CHRIS JOHN D LA Impersonal but newsy page LOST
TIM MICHELS R WI Blunt talk on differences with opponent LOST
BARBARA MIKULSKI D MD Longtime incumbent barely used blog WON
PATTY MURRAY D WA Loads of news clippings WON
GEORGE NETHERCUTT R WA Similar to rival Murray,a well-maintained clip service LOST
BARACK OBAMA D IL Online strength may help him beyond the Senate WON
INEZ TENENBAUM D SC Infrequent posts petered out altogether late in race LOST

This article was originally published on 11-05-2004