Campaigns Experimenting Online to See What Works

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Super Tuesday isn't just draining campaigns of much-needed money and challenging their organizational mettle. Feb. 5 also is turning out to be a "big test," campaign aides say, of the reach and power of the Internet.

"We can only buy so much TV time, we can only physically go to so many states, so we need to rely on the Internet to get our message out and engage with our supporters," said Christian Ferry, deputy campaign manager for Republican Sen. John McCain.

For months, candidates have posted hundreds of videos on their YouTube channels, created profiles on social networking sites and revamped their Web sites. Independent of the campaigns, supporters have rallied online to mobilize, donate money and build buzz around candidates, from long-shot Rep. Ron Paul, whose candidacy has been largely fueled by his rock star status on the Internet, to Sen. Barack Obama, who is only now catching up to fellow Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in national polls but easily trumps the former first lady in online popularity.

Obama set an online record raising more than $28 million in January. Howard Dean, known as the first Internet candidate, raised $27 million online in 2004 during his whole campaign.

But the Web is about more than just raising money. In many ways, it has become a force multiplier, aides said, more fully integrated in the whole campaign operation and affecting each of its facets: fundraising, communications, research and field organizing. It certainly doesn't supplant traditional door-to-door canvassing, as proven by the results in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, relatively small states where on-the-ground organization was as crucial as ever. But for Tuesday's contests, when a total of 24 states will vote, the Web is the easiest, not to mention cheapest, way to reach supporters.

To Joe Trippi, who spearheaded Dean's online strategy and served as senior adviser to former senator John Edwards before he dropped out of the 2008 race, the difference from 2004 cannot be overestimated.

"Four years ago, we had pretty primitive tools. We had MeetUp, and that was it. Folks on MeetUp got together all across the country, but we at the campaign headquarters didn't know what they did," Trippi said. "Now, with GoogleMaps, people can pinpoint where they are. They can pinpoint their polling places. They can go online, get voting lists and hit the ground. And the campaign can know all of this."

It has been a year of experimentation on the Internet, all with one goal in mind: translating online enthusiasm to offline results. The rush to find new ways to use the medium to boost candidates has resulted in a "free-for-all" in which most campaigns "throw whatever they can on the wall to see what sticks," said Tim Tagaris, who led Sen. Christopher J. Dodd's new media team before the Connecticut senator dropped out of the race last month.

Peter Daou, Clinton's Internet director, said the campaign's strategy has depended on the candidate's needs at a specific time. Clinton's early use of YouTube, most notably her widely seen "Sopranos" spoof, was an effort to show her lighter side. Tomorrow night, hours before polls open on Tuesday, she will hold a national interactive town hall meeting that will be streamed on her Web site. "We can only do that online," Daou said.

Republican Mitt Romney's online features, including a customized peer-to-peer robo-call, have been singled out for their sophistication. But for most of last year, more eyes were going to sites for Paul and for Mike Huckabee, who has a loyal following among Christian evangelical bloggers. Mindy Finn, Romney's chief online strategist, said traffic to Romney's site last month -- when Romney won Michigan -- has increased tenfold since the site began in January 2007. "Ultimately, our online popularity comes down to Mitt Romney himself," she said. The tools are there. We've built what we can. It's up to him to excite voters."

The lesson for everyone: All the bells and whistles, all the innovation, don't necessarily guarantee an audience. Success online is a combination of timing, message and candidate.

"They're learning as they go along. What's been so striking about the past year is that no candidate, definitely no major candidate, . . . looked at the Internet warily. That doesn't necessarily mean everything that they're doing has worked," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "What it does mean is that most have a video strategy, a social networking strategy, a donation strategy. Everyone's trying to do everything, for better or worse."

Michael Turk, who ran President Bush's online operation in 2004 and worked as a consultant for former senator Fred D. Thompson, is generally disappointed with most of the online operations of Democrats and Republicans alike.

"From the outside looking in, it's hard to tell if the campaigns have coherent online strategies. Yes, the technology's out there. But I'm not really sure if the campaigns have moved the ball forward," he said. Turk doesn't place blame on online advisers, most of whom aren't prominent in the campaign hierarchy. In every operation, he said, "there's a big difference between what the online team is trying to do, what it's capable of doing and what's it's actually allowed to do."

One size hasn't fit all in online campaigning, and the experimenting has resulted in a few notable hits and misses. Some tactics worked, such as embedding videos in e-mails. Others, such as trying to figure out how to integrate text messaging into online mobilization, fizzled.

The rise of social networks, or "soc-nets" to the Web-savvy, was the big story last year. McCain and Obama built McCainSpace and MyBarackObama, to contrasting results. From the start, McCainSpace was viewed as "a total disaster," as David All, a GOP online strategist, wrote last March on techPresident, a bipartisan group blog that covers the ins and outs of online campaigning. MyBarackObama, meanwhile, was seen as a success, now with more than 350,000 supporters signed up.

And then there's Paul, whose "Paulites" easily rival the "Deaniacs" of four years ago. But his considerable online popularity notwithstanding, Paul has consistently trailed far behind McCain and Romney in primary votes.

"Great as it is, the Web isn't everything. It has its limitations," Paul campaign manager Lew Moore said. "Fact is, you still have to turn online activity to offline activity."

Added Ferry of the McCain campaign: "It's the question everyone always asks, right? 'Can you actually use the Internet to deliver actual votes?' Next Tuesday is a big voting day, so we'll have to see."

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