It's a potent new tool, but no one's sure how to use it
As Barack Obama made clear last week, candidates have discovered ways to raise millions of dollars in contributions from the Internet. The question is what they do with this potentially powerful tool beyond raking in cash.
Gone are the days when online politics was the fiefdom of the young. Nearly one third of all Americans now read and share campaign news online, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, and three quarters of them are over 30.
Online news consumers also are generally well educated, with half having college degrees, and affluent, with 44 percent reporting household incomes of $75,000 or more. They are thus attractive to campaigns not only as potential donors but as likely voters. The advantage in 2008, it appears, will go to the candidates who can best leverage the Internet to introduce themselves, draw media attention, organize supporters, and broaden a campaign's base of volunteers.
"There are other groups, people typically in their 30s and 40s, who are really wired up but not living the digital lifestyle," says Pew's John Horrigan, who coauthored the report on political engagement online. "Those are the groups to target with your Internet outreach, to pull into your active audience of political video watchers, for example." This process may begin with stunts like Hillary Clinton's spoof on the Sopranos finale or Bill Richardson's "Job Interview" ads on YouTube, but ultimately the campaigns are hoping to enlist an army of online volunteers.
To that end, many candidates are borrowing the architecture of social networking sites like MySpace or Facebook and applying it toward their campaigns, with varying success. Most of the major contenders have some form of "team building" advertised prominently on their websites, from explicit MySpace knockoffs like McCainSpace or My.BarackObama.com to more goal-oriented sites that encourage participants to recruit their friends to donate or volunteer.
Last week, Nielsen Media Research released figures on traffic to candidate websites that put Obama at the top, with close to 650,000 visitors in April. Hillary Clinton's website came in second with around 500,000. McCain's site was the highest trafficked among Republican candidates, with 212,000. Seen another way, Obama has more than twice the number of page views as Clintonnearly 3.8 million for Obama compared with 1.6 million for Clinton in April. This suggests more return visitors and a more devoted online readership. John Edwards actually had more page views1.7 millionthan Clinton did.
All signs point to a rapid growth in online participation. As people get more comfortable after two or three years, their activities tend to diversify, particularly in areas like giving money over the Internet. "It's the Net maturing, not politics," says Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's Internet-powered campaign in 2004 and now works on John Edwards's campaign.
Case in point: Even Richardson, who lags far behind in polls, has outpaced Dean's 2004 high-water marks for online supporters and fundraising, says Trippi.
How to Donate Online
The FEC views online giving as the same as writing a check, so donations over $200 per cycle require the name, occupation, and employer of the donor. For current lawmakers, make sure you're on the actual campaign site, with a .com or .us suffix, as opposed to the legislative site, which has a .gov suffix. The campaign sites all feature a fundraising function. From there, just enter the required info, a credit card number that remains secure, and an E-mail address for confirmation.
KEEP AN EYE ON...
The bloggers. Those Web essayists aren't just fun to read. They also keep the political conversation going outside the orbit of the mainstream media, especially among activists on the left and right. Sometimes the blogosphere will break news, which can recycle back to the mainstream and get a wider audience.
This story appears in the July 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.