We made it! The 2006 campaign season is dead (well, mostly), and it’s already time to dig up the bodies and see what they can teach us. Here are some lessons I’ve taken away from the last few months of online political frenzy.
The Internet is Still a Spark, Not a Firestorm
This year, YouTube and online video really came of age: a slew of campaign ads, embarrassing candidate gaffes and satirical commentary pieces ended up on the web and some were seen hundreds of thousands of times. Online video could highlight a candidate’s troubles, provide an outlet for supporters’ creative enthusiasm and even raise the profile of an otherwise obscure campaign.
I’d agree with Mike Cornfield and Lee Rainie’s article in last Sunday’s Post, though, that the most important effects of online video actually came from its amplification by the mainstream media. For example, many more people read about the George Allen “macaca” moment in a newspaper or watched it on television than actually saw it on YouTube. But, a critical nucleus of people needed to have seen it online before it could explode into the broader media. I’d argue that blogs function similarly: compared with the numbers of television news viewers, relatively few people read blogs, but those that do are disproportionately likely to be opinion leaders — or journalists. A blog with a few thousand readers can still influence the news read and seen by millions if the author can break a story or keep one alive that’s otherwise being ignored.
In other words, it’s the wider firestorm of attention through the mainstream media, particularly television, radio and newspapers, that shifts the course of compaigns, but blogs and online video can provide the initial spark of information. Our challenge as online communicators is to fan the flames until they catch.
The Internet Is Best at Connecting Campaigns with their Dedicated Supporters, Not a Mass Audience
Despite the high percentage of traffic that goes to the top handful of websites, the internet is still a medium of niches rather than a mass medium. If you want to persuade a mass audience, particularly a geographically concentrated one, television is your tool of choice, supplemented by radio, press outreach, direct mail and robo-calls.
What the internet excels at is relationship-seeking and relationship-building. Your website (or your MySpace site, blog, search advertising or blog advertising) lets you catch potential supporters at a moment when they’re interested in you. If the site is designed right, it makes it easy for them to establish a relationship with your campaign by signing up for a list or RSS feed or even making a donation. Once they’re in, they’re in — you can use email and other tools to leverage that initial relationship to encourage them to volunteer time or donate money and to reach out to their network of friends and acquaintances. But even an email list is still essentially a series of one-to-one communications, not a mass medium in the sense that television is.
The closest online-only analogs to mainstream media-style audiences might be the handful of super-popular blogs (Daily Kos, Red State) and also viral campaigns, since the mass-spread of an email message or a YouTube clip can reach a large population of people who might not have otherwise considered getting involved in a campaign. But besides message distribution, the main goal of blog outreach and viral campaigning is to capture supporters, which comes right back to relationship-building.
Email is Still the Killer Application
Regardless of the attention paid to MySpace and other social networking applications, for this election cycle at least, email was still the main way of keeping in touch with supporters and the media. I doubt you’ll find very many campaigns of any prominence without a way of capturing supporters’ email addresses. Despite the problems we’ve seen with email advocacy, lists are still the best way to send campaign updates, fundraising requests, volunteer requests and last-minute get-out-the-vote messages. And, most campaigns relied on a blizzard of emails to get their daily (or hourly) spin out to journalists, editorial writers and bloggers.
Down the road, cell phone text messages may take over some of email’s tasks, particularly for event-organizing and GoTV, but they’re fundamentally limited by message lengths and by restrictions imposed by providers.
MySpace can definitely be used for recruitment and as a mass communications tool, particularly if you’re trying to reach younger voters who have moved away from the casual use of email, but most advice I’ve seen about using social network sites for political advocacy stresses the importance of moving MySpace friends onto normal advocacy lists as soon as possible. In this campaign cycle, even a candidate like Phil Angelides in California, who really tried to build a big MySpace profile, only ended up with 7630 friends — a tiny fraction of the necessary size of an activist list for a statewide race in California.
Online Fundraising Has Not Supplanted the Old-Fashioned Kind, But It Still Matters
As Cornfield and Rainie pointed out, less than 5% of the money raised for the 2006 election came from online sources — the real money arrived in large chunks at fundraisers and through networks of wealthy supporters. But, online fundraising brings in millions of small donors who’d previously been excluded from the political process. And once someone has donated to a campaign, they’re wedded to it — they’re on an email list, of course, but more than that, they’re invested emotionally as well as financially. I’d argue that once people have donated, they’re more likely to vote, more likely to volunteer and much more likely to encourage friends to do the same. Their money is important, but their sense of involvement in the campaign is a significant part of the REAL value of online donations.
Political Microtargeting Went Mainstream
This year the media really began to wake up to the potential of database-driven political microtargeting to allow campaigns to find voters in unlikely places and hit them with carefully-crafted messages. As news coverage switched to the turnout battle in the last weeks of the elections, many stories discussed the Republicans’ voter-mobilization machine and the Democrats’ efforts to match it. In the first week of November, microtargeting-related queries easily constituted a third of Google traffic to e.politics.
But microtargeting has the potential to help with more than just the last-minute turnout frenzy, since campaigns can use consumer information databases to zero-in on and recruit supporters long before the actual election. Microtargeting will continue to be behind-the-scenes, but it’s a part of electronic politics that’s here to stay.
The Information Explosion
Sometimes it can be hard to notice how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades. The first political campaign I paid close attention to was in 1992, when I was right out of college and working in Texas politics. My information sources? The three major networks and PBS (plus CNN when I was around a tv that actually had cable) and the Austin American-Statesman. Maybe the New York Times when I bought it at a coffeeshop over the weekend. Once the Sunday morning news shows were over, that was essentially it for substantive political coverage until CNN’s Inside Politics the next day. In retrospect, even someone who was passionately interested in politics could find only a limited amount of information per day.
Now? Political junkies can check dozens or hundreds of news sources every hour, both corporate-owned and informal. Cable news and talk radio have expanded dramatically, and they’ve joined with hundreds of thousands of online news outlets, advocacy sites, political blogs, email lists, podcasts and vodcasts to bombard us with information to the point that the problem isn’t too little, but too much. From juicy scandals to the details of polling data and methodology, very few potential stories remain unexamined by somebody somewhere, and the biggest obstacle to a story’s breaking big isn’t the major-media filters but the difficulty of cutting through the cacophony and the clutter.
Of course this is obvious, but perhaps it’s so obvious that we tend to forget about it. Internet political professionals often concentrate our attention on the particular tools we use to get our messages out, but the real effect of the Internet and the electronics explosion of the last 15 years has been the immense deepening and broadening of the sea of information in which we now swim. Our biggest task is just to get noticed as we drift along.