Monday, May 21, 2007

"Candidates lengthen their reach on Internet"

Chicago Tribune:
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The morning was rainy and cold, and the kickoff site was awash in mud, but the weather wasn't the biggest obstacle facing organizers of the first door-to-door canvass on behalf of presidential candidate Barack Obama over the weekend.

A significant number of the volunteers had been identified by way of the campaign's Web site and several social networking sites, and no one was sure how many of these invisible supporters would actually show up.
When more than 550 people turned out in their rain ponchos and Gore-Tex jackets, event organizers were relieved -- and stunned by the size of the crowd.

"People had signed up to come, but the weather has been in question for about a week," said Reid Cherlin, the New Hampshire press secretary for the Obama campaign.

"This shows that they are just as serious in their commitment as people you reach through another medium."

Uncertainty is nothing new in campaigning. And with online matchmaking offering all kinds of new possibilities, politicians are happy for the chance to find like-minded people and interact with them in the comfort of their own homes.

But as valuable as the new virtual tools are, they also pose a special set of challenges, along with one very big unknown: How does virtual interest turn into real-world activism?

The answers are hard to discern, though political activists are gleaning what they can from recent experience.

One of the first campaigns to organize through the Internet was that of Republican John McCain, who in his 2000 presidential bid raised millions of dollars and attracted 40,000 people to join his online supporter database.

Broadband availability improved over the next four years, and Howard Dean took things several steps further in his 2004 bid for the Democratic nomination for president, signing up some 650,000 supporters and raising millions online.

Campaigns now are studying what worked and what failed in those earlier templates, essentially trying to marry use of the new tools with old-fashioned outreach.

One result thus far is greater fundraising online -- a tangible way for voters to have an impact with just a few strokes of the keyboard.

"There is only one medium in the world that allows 5 million Americans to decide tomorrow morning they are going to give Barack Obama a hundred bucks," Joe Trippi, who led Dean's breakout digital campaign, recently told the audience at a Harvard University Institute of Politics program. "Television can't do that, the radio can't do that."

Increasingly, campaign organizers are realizing that they don't have to lift a finger to make it happen -- and that maybe it helps if they don't. Acting independently of the official operations, supporters organizing their own Facebook pages have attracted thousands who rely on friends and not politicians for candidate recommendations. "It's a pretty amazing thing that somebody out there using tools totally on their own, not involved in the campaign, can get that many young people and others in Facebook to sign up," said Trippi, who is now working to elect Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

Young voters make up a significant part of the digital demographic, and experience shows that they respond to invitations from people they know.

"We know from field work and from political science that peer-to-peer contact is the best way to get a young voter engaged," said Kathleen Barr, research director for Young Voter Strategies, a non-partisan group working to increase the electoral participation of young adults. "A candidate's Facebook page won't be as useful as a young person spreading the word to 10 or 20 of their friends."

The Obama campaign challenged that principle recently when officials seized control of a MySpace page run by an enthusiastic supporter. After the page hadgathered 160,000 friends, campaign officials decided they should control content and responses to users who sent messages.

Obama called the supporter to try to make amends. But in a development illustrating another peril of the new digital autonomy, the young man said the campaign's decision made him question whether he still wanted to support Obama.

No matter how a candidate tries to leverage the online database, he or she still has to provide the same thing that voters have always demanded, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"You can have the best list in the world, but if the candidate can't turn on people, then it doesn't work," Sabato said. "They're not going to reply to the e-mail. They're not going to post comments. And they're not going to vote for that candidate."

As hundreds of volunteers gathered for the canvass event on Saturday morning, several of them said they'd originally made contact virtually.

Maeve McEneny, a graduate student from Albany, N.Y., joined up with other Obama supporters on a social networking site. After one of the site's friends suggested that they all meet at a local coffeehouse, she and a few other people started talking about also volunteering in person.

Braving the elements on Saturday in a pair of sandals and a woolen sweater, McEneny said she was a little reluctant to take part in the canvass. Knocking on doors to pass petitions and hand out literature makes her nervous, she said.

But when she got to the event and met other Obama supporters, she started to get her nerve. And then Obama gave the crowd a fiery pep talk, which he concluded by shaking hands and talking with the volunteers.

"I was terrified, up until he spoke," she said. "Then he shook my hand and looked me in the eye. He said things I believe in.

"And he has that energy. ... That changed my mind."

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