Web's reach transforms campaigns


WASHINGTON -- The transformation of American politics by the Internet is accelerating with the approach of the 2006 congressional and 2008 White House elections, producing far-reaching changes in the way campaigns approach advertising, fundraising, mobilizing supporters and even the spreading of negative information.

Democrats and Republicans are sharply increasing their use of e-mail, interactive Web sites, candidate and party blogs, and text-messaging to raise money, organize get-out-the-vote efforts and assemble crowds for rallies. The Internet, they said, appears to be far more efficient, and less costly, than the traditional tools of politics, notably door knocking and telephone banks.

Analysts say the campaign television advertisement, already diminishing in influence with the proliferation of cable stations, faces new challenges as campaigns experiment with technology that allows direct messaging to more specific audiences, and through unconventional means.

Those include podcasts featuring a daily downloaded message from a candidate and so-called viral attack videos, designed to trigger peer-to-peer distribution by e-mail chains, without being associated with any candidate or campaign. Campaigns are studying popular Internet social networks as ways to reach groups of potential supporters with similar political views or cultural interests.

What the parties and the candidates are undergoing is similar to what has happened in various media sectors as they try to adjust to, and take advantage of, the Web.

Certainly, the Internet was a significant factor in 2004, particularly with the early success in fundraising and organizing by Howard Dean, a Democratic presidential contender. But officials in both parties say the extent to which the parties have recognized and rely on the Internet has increased at a staggering rate over the past two years.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 50 million Americans go to the Internet for news every day, up from 27 million people in March 2002, a reflection of the fact that 70 percent of Americans have Internet access.

This means, aides said, rethinking every assumption about running a campaign: how to reach different segments of voters, how to get voters to the polls, how to raise money and the best way to have a candidate interact with the public. Early in the 2004 campaign, John Edwards, then a Democratic senator from North Carolina seeking his party's presidential nomination, spent much of his time talking to voters in living rooms in New Hampshire and Iowa; now he is putting aside hours every week to videotape responses to videotaped questions, which he posts on his blog.

"If you want to get your message out, the old way of paying someone to make a TV ad is insufficient: You need your message out through the Internet, through e-mail, through talk radio," said Ken Mehlman, the Republican national chairman.

Michael Cornfield, a political science professor at George Washington University who studies politics and the Internet, said campaigns were actually late in coming to the game. "Politicians are having a hard time reconciling themselves to a medium where they can't control the message," Cornfield said.

Analysts said the Internet appeared to be a way to appeal to new, young voters. In the 2004 campaign, 80 percent of people between the age of 18 and 34 who contributed to John Kerry's campaign made their contribution online, said Carol Darr, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.

Not incidentally, as it becomes more integrated in American politics, the Internet is being used for the less seemly side of campaigns.

Both parties have set up Web sites to discredit opponents. In Tennessee, Republicans spotlighted what they described as the lavish spending habits of Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. with a site called fancyford.com. That site drew 100,000 hits the first weekend and extensive coverage in the mainstream Tennessee press.

Democrats have set up decoy Web sites to post documents with damaging information about Republicans. They described this means of distribution as far more efficient than the more traditional slip of a document to a newspaper reporter.

A senior party official, who was granted anonymity in exchange for describing a clandestine effort, said the party created a now-defunct site called D.C. Inside Scoop to, among other things, distribute a document written by Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican, discussing the political benefits of the Terri Schiavo case.

Democrats have been particularly enthusiastic about the potential of this technology to get the party back on track.

"This new media becomes much more important to us because conservatives have been more dominant in traditional media," said Simon Rosenberg, the president of the centrist New Democratic Network. "This stuff becomes really critical for us."

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