Edwards blazes trail on Internet

by Rob Christensen

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

24 May 2007


RALEIGH, N.C. - In the run up to Memorial Day, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has been all over the Internet.

There is an Edwards video on YouTube.com asking people to forego their usual picnics and call for withdrawal of U.S troops from Iraq. On an Edwards campaign blog called www.SupportTheTroopsEndTheWar.com, there is a map of Memorial Day activities opposing the war.

There are similar messages by Edwards - or his supporters - on political blogs such as The Daily Kos, and social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and dozens of other sites.

The 2008 presidential election has made a giant shift into the Internet age, with many of the campaigns devoting large amounts of time and money to reaching voters through cyberspace. All of the major presidential candidates have major Internet outreach programs. Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, announced their candidacies on the Web.

But no one has been a more aggressive e-candidate than Edwards, the former North Carolina senator.

Edwards has used the Internet to help keep his name in front of Democratic Party activists as he seeks to stay competitive with frontrunners Clinton and Obama.

The Internet has also been a major source of campaign contributions. Edwards officials estimate they raised $3.3 million from 37,000 donors online during the first three months of the year.

Even Republicans have taken notice of the reach and sophistication of the Edwards Internet operation.

“I’ve been really, really impressed with John Edwards and the stuff he is trying to do,” said David All, a Republican Web consultant in Washington. “He’s the most willing to be at the tip of the spear of technology. It has really worked for him.”

But the Internet has been a two-edged sword for Edwards. Two Edwards staff bloggers resigned earlier this year when their writings critical of the Catholic Church became an issue. And a frequently visited video on YouTube features a nearly two-minute long video of Edwards combing his hair before a TV appearance.

Still, the Web remains a powerful tool for reaching voters.

The number of people who get most of their political information from the Internet doubled between 2002 and 2006, according a survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank. The younger the age group, the heavier the use of the Internet for politics, the study found.

As he retooled his campaign for the 2008 run, Edwards sought to engage grassroots Democrats through his ardent opposition to the war in Iraq, his emphasis on battling poverty and his advocacy on behalf of labor unions. Edwards had an active Internet outreach during his 2004 presidential run, but nothing like the current effort.

In many ways, Edwards has borrowed - and built upon - the efforts of former presidential candidate and opponent Howard Dean, who pioneered in the use of the Internet in 2004.

Edwards’ campaign staff, based in Chapel Hill, is staffed by several former Dean Internet whizzes, including Matthew Gross and Ben Brandzel, and he recently added Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager.

“This is an extension of our campaign, and the goal of the campaign is to change America,” said Brandzel, Edwards’ director of online communications, who was advocacy director for MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group, before joining the campaign. “We engage our supporters who are passionate.”

Internet campaigning works best for candidates who are seeking to win over motivated, ideological supporters on hot button issues such as Iraq, says Julie Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University.

Connecting to the online world is particularly important for Democrats. Internet politics tends to be dominated by the political left, just as talk radio tends to lean to the political right.

The Web has opened up politics to a broader range of people.

“Two decades ago,” said Germany, “if people wanted to get involved in a campaign, you’d drive to a campaign headquarters and ask people you don’t know: `Can you put me to work?’ - probably starting stuffing envelopes. Today, if you want to help a campaign, all you need is an Internet connection. You can e-mail friends or contribute. Unless you’re part of the online world, it’s hard to understand.”

Among the new technologies of the online world is twittering. Edwards was the first presidential candidate to use twitters - sending text messages to supporters. He often sends large groups of supporters short notes from the campaign trail as a way to stay connected.

“It’s a new opportunity for grassroots activism, which is so critical for strengthening democracy,” Edwards told WNYC Radio earlier this year. The interview can be found on YouTube.

Edwards staffers say John and his wife Elizabeth have long been eager Internet converts. Elizabeth became an early user after the death of her son Wade in a 1996 automobile accident. She used chat rooms to connect with other parents who lost their children. Elizabeth Edwards also spent many hours helping set up an after-school computer study room she and her husband funded for Raleigh’s Broughton High School.

The Edwards campaign has courted bloggers, even paying the costs for several to travel with his campaign during his announcement swing through key primary and caucus states in December.

John Edwards has used the Internet in numerous ways. He set up OneCorp, a Web-powered service organization that works on community projects. Edwards, Elizabeth and his daughter Cate have all blogged. Edwards is the subject of video blogs taken on airplane trips between events, where he muses on camera about events of the day.

Like old-style politics, Internet politics can take some unusual twists and turns - perhaps none more bizarre than the vandalism of John Edwards’ virtual headquarters.

The headquarters doesn’t actually exist, except in cyberspace. But an Edwards supporter from Virginia maintained a virtual campaign headquarters - complete with animated figures and a photograph of Edwards, at a Web site called “Second Life” which offers a virtual 3D world where some four million people live parallel lives through their computer.

In February, the Edwards “Second Life” headquarters was defaced by vandals, - Edwards’ face was painted in black, and graffiti was sprayed over the headquarters. A virtual attack on a virtual headquarters.

Whether such phenomenon as virtual campaign headquarters or twitters will affect an election won’t be known until election day.

“At the end of the day,” said Germany, “two actions are going to count: Did you donate and did you get out and vote. Only one of those can be done online.”

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