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Web's role widens in campaigns

Mike Dorning
Chicago Tribune
Jacob Colker, field director for Peter Franchot's campaign for Maryland Comptroller, recruited many of the campaign's volunteers through Internet sites. (Stephanie Kuykendal/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

WASHINGTON - Jacob Colker's task was formidable: Rapidly assemble a network of campaign volunteers to launch an insurgent candidate to the Democratic nomination for a statewide office in Maryland against a well-organized, two-term incumbent.

His plan was a natural, at least for a 23-year old.

Go to MySpace.com and Facebook.com, the hugely popular social-networking sites, and seek out college students in the region whose profiles showed both a political science major and a liberal viewpoint.

With that, the campaign of Peter Franchot for comptroller had exploited the latest twist in political networking to winning effect, using the click of the mouse over the knock on the door. By pushing the two Web sites most popular with young voters, the campaign recruited 80 percent of its volunteers. Within four weeks, that youthful army made 15,000 phone calls, dropped 50,000 pieces of campaign literature and Franchot won the September primary.

"Right now, that's the best way to reach youth," said Colker, who learned the art of drawing crowds while promoting his rock band Medici in his native Chicago.

Social networking is but one of the new technologies political campaigns are enlisting in this year's unusually competitive, bitterly partisan midterm elections. While news coverage of the campaign focuses on war, terrorism, economics and immigration, the parties and candidates are engaged in a furious backroom struggle to one-up the opposition in adapting to the new virtual playing field.

Technology's march injects extra potential for volatility in this year's elections, opening the way for candidates who master the new political art forms to make a breakthrough. With the public so intensely polarized, achieving even slight shifts in support can produce decisive gains on Election Day, particularly in a midterm election that typically is dominated by core partisans.

At the same time, the midterms serve as a technological testing ground for the coming presidential campaign, with the most successful innovations certain to be rolled out on a far grander scale in the richly financed contest for the White House.

Almost every serious campaign has a Web site, often with a robust video component, a regularly updated blog and buttons that users can click to donate or volunteer. Many candidates have created profiles on MySpace or Facebook, and both parties have set up their own social networking sites to link together activists. And campaigns are exploiting YouTube.com for both positive and negative ends.

Democrats claim that Party Builder, accessible through the Democratic National Committee site democrats.org, has already attracted more than 10,000 people since a Sept. 5 launch. MyGOP, available through the Republican National Committee site gop.com, also claims thousands of people, with profiles displaying each activist's progress toward goals for fundraising, volunteer recruitment and voter contacts.

With on-demand video, DVDs and online entertainment eroding television audiences and devices such as TiVo permitting growing numbers of TV viewers to skip commercials, politicians also are searching for new ways to communicate with voters, including viral marketing campaigns spread by individuals through e-mail. Political gaffes and clever attack ads can now spread quickly over the Internet through video-sharing sites. A few campaigns are experimenting with cell phone text messaging, though primarily to rally existing supporters. Sophisticated campaigns also are tailoring customized messages to smaller and smaller slices of the electorate. What campaign strategists call "microtargeting" has been made possible by an explosion in privately maintained consumer databases and advances in data mining techniques also used in the war on terror.

The change has been swift since the now-quaint time in 1996 when Lamar Alexander, then a Republican presidential candidate, called a major press conference to announce that he had a Web site. Broadband access has surged. By August this year, 75 percent of U.S. Internet users had broadband access at home versus 51 percent two years earlier, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

With broadband, people are spending more time on the Internet. And the Web has become a much more powerful political tool as it has become an easy way to spread audio, photos and, most notably, video.

The leading social networking site, MySpace, is just three years old but by August had more than 49 million unique visitors and more than 27 billion page views for the month, according to Nielsen. YouTube didn't even exist during the 2004 campaign; in August, it had more than 34 million unique visitors, according to Nielsen.

Sen. George Allen's, R-Va., anticipated easy glide to a re-election victory came to an abrupt halt in August after he was captured on video calling an Asian-American campaign worker for his Democratic challenger a "macaca," a term considered a racial slur by some. Though also broadcast on the news at the time, the episode took on an extended life on the Internet, with the video clip rapidly spreading throughout the world and persisting as a phenomenon for weeks.

With inexpensive digital video cameras and the ease of video-sharing over the Web, a campaign can effectively track an opponent on it own, without depending on the uncertain attention span and editorial judgments of profit-minded mainstream media. As a result, local campaigns increasingly are subject to the kind of constant scrutiny that previously had been reserved primarily for presidential campaigns.

Perhaps of greater significance, savvy use of the Internet is opening the way for faster and more efficient mobilization of volunteer networks to carry out the groundwork of a campaign, such as canvassing for support and getting out the vote on Election Day.

"The organizational aspect is transformative," said Democratic political consultant David Plouffe. "If you're a dynamic person with a compelling message, you can have some confidence you can build an organization."

The laborious process of recruiting volunteers has been eased. Campaigns can recruit through Web sites, e-mail, or - as the Maryland comptroller candidate did - through networking sites. Instead of using time-consuming phone trees to organize volunteers for an event, one e-mail will do. And some time-consuming functions have been automated, such as allowing individual volunteers to download lists of prospective supporters for door-to-door canvassing on their own time without ever making a trip to a campaign office.

Though many of the new technological developments offer the opportunity for outsider candidates to level the playing field a bit against well-organized incumbents, it is the ruling Republican party that so far has made the best use of the political potential of microtargeting, most political professionals believe.

A treasured GOP database, dubbed Voter Vault, contains information on virtually every voter in the United States. The database draws together information from voter registration records, demographic data such as age and gender, and sometimes hundreds of pieces of additional information from public records and private sources. That can include which church a voter attends, what magazines they read, what automobiles they drive and consumer products they buy, what political organizations they support, even whether they have a hunting or fishing license.

The data can be used to predict a voter's party and preferences. Computer models can even flag potential political differences among family members living under the same roof.

"What the computer allows us to do is go through hundreds of variables and sort out what's most important to that household," said a Republican Party official. "If a household is interested in both social conservative issues and gun rights and we only want to send them one piece of mail, do we send them the gun piece or the partial-birth abortion piece?"

In essence, it serves as a virtual equivalent of the streetwalking precinct captain, who knew every voter in the neighborhood and what it would take to get them to the polls.

Microtargeting was used to great effect to motivate record numbers of Republican voters to go to the polls in battleground states such as Ohio in the 2004 presidential elections. This year, it has since been refined and expanded to competitive congressional districts across the country, including Republican Peter Roskam's campaign against Democrat Tammy Duckworth for the suburban Chicago seat vacated by retiring GOP Rep. Henry Hyde. Democrats are belatedly catching up.

Ironically, technological advances also are being used in some cases to revive the kind of old-fashioned person-to-person campaigning that had seemed to fade with the rise of television advertising.

In Democrat Ned Lamont's successful insurgent campaign to wrest the Connecticut Democratic Senate nomination from incumbent Joe Lieberman, supporters were invited to use a Web site to type out personal endorsements of Lamont that the campaign then sent out on postcards to friends, families and neighbors.

With each card taking only a few seconds to fill out over the Web, the campaign sent out "well over" 25,000 of the postcards in the days before the primary, said Lamont Internet director Tim Tagaris.

"You can't beat that person-to-person contact," Tagaris said. "It was real touching to just read some of the postcards that went out: old friends reuniting, a father telling his son to vote for Ned and call home once in a while."

Advocates see some of the same potential in viral marketing efforts in which campaigns try to persuade supporters to e-mail messages or videos to friends and acquaintances.

Voters are far more likely to open and read an e-mail from someone they know. "If I tell someone on my list of 100,000 to do something, that's one thing. But if they're hearing it from their sister or mother or neighbor, it's much more effective," said John Hlinko, a founder of the Web-focused Draft Wesley Clark campaign and now a vice president with Grassroots Enterprise, a political consultant group.

The challenge is to create messages engaging enough that recipients want to send them on to acquaintances. Many campaigns are still grappling with the concept, often falling back on language plucked directly from traditional direct mail appeals, failing to take full potential of the opportunities offered by e-mail, Hlinko said.

"I'm waiting for the day when someone runs down the street saying, `Wow. Look at this junk mail. It's really interesting," Hlinko said. "That kind of stuff happens on e-mail everyday."

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