Sunday, June 10, 2007

"Politics and Cyberspace"

Kate Phillips (Caucus-NY Times):
We caught up the other day with a conference about campaign politics and the Internet, where Joe Trippi took time out from baking, er, burning pies with the Edwards campaign to trace the arc of the influence of politics on cyberspace, and vice versa. A few of the e-advisers to the campaigns, namely those with the Clinton, Obama and McCain operations, also attended. They didn’t give away many trade secrets, but offered some insights into what works and what doesn’t at this stage of the election cycle.
For those of you who live and breathe in this world, much that was said at the George Washington University seminar — “The Future of Political Communications: Connecting With Young Voters” wouldn’t be very newsworthy. But for those who are novices, or simply just surfing in leisure time, a few points seemed worth sharing.

Putting things in perspective, Mr. Trippi, author of “This Revolution Will Not Be Televised’’ and formerly with the Dean campaign in 2004, observed that things on the Internet are changing so quickly that it’s hard to keep up. “You’re learning every day something you didn’t know yesterday,'’ he said.

The campaign of Senator John McCain in 2000 pioneered use of the web for fundraising; at the time there were very few blogs, if any. By the 2004 cycle, he said, there were 1.4 million blogs. Today? 71 million.

In 2004, the Dean camp and its followers used MeetUp to connect supporters; now, there’s MySpace, Facebook, Second Life and Eventful. Campaigns increasingly mine these social networks in an effort to connect with new voters.

And while some candidates would earlier want to get in touch with DailyKos, with its vast readership, they now also know that if they roll out a health care plan, for example, that the campaigns need to make sure those proposals find their way onto health blogs, Mr. Trippi said. Peter Daou, the Internet campaign director for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, pointed to the message boards on AARP, for example, as proof of another audience, or the readership of UrbanBaby.

The demographics of many sites defy the stereotypes that the Internet is used only by the young, and by tech-savvy young men. Josh Orton, deputy new media director for the campaign of Senator Barack Obama, cautioned: “It would be wrong to underestimate the hunger that people who are older than their 20’s and 30’s have for being engaged in the political process.’’

In this cycle, Mr. Trippi said the burgeoning popularity of cellphone cameras, YouTube and the use of video-on-demand provide campaigns with more tools to generate support and connections between candidates and voters. These tools, in the hands of everyday people, flip upside-down the hierarchical tradition of message-controlled political campaigns. If you’ve ever heard Mr. Trippi before, you know that he firmly believes the Internet and the way that it is used in politics puts democracy into the fingers and voices of voters, and he reiterated that at the conference. YouTube and video set a mandate for candidates to be more authentic, he asserted.

The downside, evidenced by former Senator George Allen’s “macaca’’ moment on YouTube, translates into candidates and campaign staffs being allowed very few private moments. And it underscores ways in which campaigns can no longer control the message; for example, the “1984’’ video portraying Senator Clinton as “Big Sister.’’ Mr. Dao said that video did provoke debate within the campaign about how and whether to respond. Senator Clinton dealt with it in her own way, joking that maybe viewers wouldn’t be watching her off-key singing the national anthem.

Staying on top of sites and videos not connected to the campaigns might be considered a “dangerous’’ period, in which some notorious moments will just be endlessly replayed. But Mr. Trippi predicted that the public would simply get used to these blips, laugh, toss them off and move on.

Asked whether someone like FDR could’ve become president – given that he hid his polio from the electorate – in the YouTube era, Mr. Trippi said: “You’re right, he wouldn’t have been able to hide it, and maybe he wouldn’t have been elected. The reality is, that’s the way it is. You’re not going to be able to hide who you are.’’

To combat a “macaca moment,’’ Mr. Trippi suggested, campaigns could “flood the zone’’ with their own responses. But then, he added, “We can’t get ahead of ourselves. The first thing he needed to do in a very old media way is say, ‘That was wrong. I screwed up. Let’s move on,’ and also flood the zone…

“This new thing is not some big shield that protects you like’’ Kryptonite. … “You need to take ownership.’’

What’s next? Well, some of the campaigns have already moved on from announcing their candidacies on video, among them Senator Clinton, to engaging in a back-and-forth on YouTube and elsewhere as she has done with her song contest by incorporating even some of the negative responses, Mr. Daou pointed out. The campaigns have become aware that simply putting a video out there, leaving it on a shelf to collect screendust, doesn’t cut it. Connecting and inviting responses, whether through webchats (where questions are still screened by campaigns), foster engagement.

Mr. Orton cited the Obama camp’s “my policy’’ area on the candidate’s Web site, to seek input and experiences of those writing in who offer feedback, which then wend their way into Mr. Obama’s speeches. For the campaign site overall, Mr. Orton said: “We want a lot of repeat. We want their relationship to the campaign to be durable and to expand and to be meaningful. … We also want to design and build for someone who maybe isn’t already a hardcore Barack supporter. … The most successful program is keeping all those plates spinning at once. ‘’

For the Edwards campaign, Mr. Trippi said, a little thing that has gone unnoticed has been to ask supporters to play IT-tag –- this is what one person did about poverty today and then tag another person to carry on. (Kind of like a pay-it-forward ploy, we’d add.)

To some degree, the campaigns are moving toward greater use of text-messaging, given the ubitiquousness of cellphones. Senator Clinton’s camp already jumped into that mobile marketing venture; Mr. Daou said a lot of people signed up to learn through texting the winner of her songfest. But he and the others cautioned that just because say, one campaign is using Twitter, that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for another candidate.

Yet however much these campaigns welcome the Internet’s “wild west’’ personality, it’s still simply a gauge and a tool for typical campaign objectives. Mr. Trippi acknowledged that the money-chase is everpresent, and complimented Mr. Obama’s ability to get 100,000 donors in online contributions in the first quarter this year. (Outside the conference, Michael Falcone asked Mr. Trippi how well Mr. Edwards’s fundraising was going this quarter. He wouldn’t say, but did tout the thousands who signed up to “bake a difference’’ after his pie-making debut. )

To Mark SooHoo, deputy e-campaign director for Senator McCain’s efforts, “Politics at its core is about social networking. What we’re doing is putting a new spin on things, but really at the end of the day, the goal hasn’t changed.”

The campaigns do examine page view numbers, he added, saying that at this point in the cycle, many users hit the biography and issue points. Mr. Orton said he aims to offer supporters or viewers as many access points as possible.

All in all, though, Mr. SooHoo said his No. 1 goal is not to create another cool Web site, “but to make sure John McCain is the next president of the United States.’’

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