September 21st, 2009
Part One of a series
Barack Obama won’t be on the ballot in November of 2010, but thousands of other candidates will — and he’ll be very much on their minds. His public image will shape the American political environment, of course, but plenty of politicians and political professionals on all sides will also look to his ground-breaking online campaign as an inspiration, seeking to replicate his success at using the internet to raise money, find supporters and put people to work in the real world.
But running for state legislature, a congressional seat, a governorship or even the U.S. Senate is different than running for president, and relatively few down-ballot candidates have done much more than dip their toes in the digital waters so far. That’s likely to change soon: despite the vast gap between a national race and one for dog-catcher, many of the same online political rules apply and most of the same technologies are available. Here’s why state- and local-level campaigns should pay attention to the potential of internet-based politics in 2010.
1. The Internet is (Just About) Everywhere
Regardless of local demographics, the internet can be a factor in almost any election in the U.S. In wealthier urban and suburban areas, most voters will be online and a majority will have broadband access, but even in far-flung rural areas or poorer parts of cities email at least is usually available. Not every segment of U.S. society is well-represented online, but the politically active are much more likely to use the internet for news and information than their tuned-out neighbors. And despite stereotypes, the days of the computer as a young person’s preserve are long gone — the majority of people 65 and up now connect electronically at least on occasion.
2. Online Fundraising Works
If the 2008 presidential race taught us anything, it’s that the internet is one hell of a cash machine — Obama’s ability to raise as much money as his campaign could reasonably absorb, in part by returning to the small donors who stuck with him again and again through the worst, was decisive. State and local campaigns are getting more expensive every cycle, a trend that will probably accelerate as campaign finance limits dissolve, and candidates at all levels will likely find themselves turning to online donations to keep up.
But online fundraising doesn’t happen by magic — it’s usually the result of a concerted strategy to make it happen. Fortunately for us…
3. The Tools and Techniques are Available to (Almost) All
As vendors have developed software suites that scale to match campaigns of different sizes, internet-based fundraising and supporter-management packages are now within reach of almost any political operation. Best practices for using them are no secret, either, since plenty of strategy guides supplement the clear example of the Obama campaign itself. The essential tools usually include a website, an email-based Constituent Relations Management system and an online fundraising module, which campaigns can then promote through online social networks, video, blogger outreach, Google Ads and other channels.
4. Targeted Online Outreach + Down-Ballot Candidates = a Perfect Match
Top-level presidential candidates seem to get media attention every time they open their mouths, but the problem for state and local campaigns is more often to get noticed at all. In races with limited resources and little press coverage, the inherent ability to target most online outreach at low cost can help stretch a tight budget.
In a densely populated urban or suburban area, for instance, broadcast TV advertising is impractical for many campaigns because too many spots will be wasted on viewers outside district lines. In that case, cheap Google and Facebook ads could work alongside targeted cable TV spots to spread messages and help find supporters, donors and volunteers in a defined geographic area.
Blog outreach may also be more of a priority for a local candidate, since state and regional political blogs (and Twitter!) provide convenient gathering places for political activists. Like many other forms of social media outreach, blogging and blogger relations are usually cheap financially but expensive in time, a good fit for scrappy campaigns with more enthusiasm than cash. Regardless of their size, though, just about any campaign can also benefit from having a body of clear, topical and targeted content on the web in a variety of outlets, since voters, bloggers and journalists alike will be turning to Mr. Google for basic information about local races.
5. You May Not Be Online, But Your Opponents Probably Are
Bringing up Google illustrates why modern campaigns ignore the internet at their peril, because their rivals probably aren’t following the same script. For instance, if you’re a candidate and your opponents AREN’T raising money online, they’re at least posting content that criticizes you, which is going unanswered if you’re not responding. Candidates can’t control the online political debate, but they can influence it — in the world of blogs, YouTube, Google and social forwarding, a robust online presence isn’t just an offensive weapon, it’s also a powerful defense. The best response to an online attack? An established foundation of good content, plus aggressive outreach and a lot of trusted voices speaking on your behalf.
Turnout is Key in Off-Year Elections
With no presidential candidates on the ballot, 2010 voter turnout is likely to plummet from the heights it reached in 2008. In an election in which relatively few people vote, identifying your supporters and motivating them to actually show up at the polls is absolutely key. As we’ll see in the chapters ahead, online technologies turn out to be perfect for maintaining communications with many people at once and in an affordable way, helping to build the connections that yield donations, volunteer time and (ultimately) votes.
Begin at the Very Beginning
Okay, we’re convinced — so where do state-and local-level candidates start? Let’s look next at the essentials of online political campaigning, including the basic tools and activities involved and the resources needed. After that, we’ll talk about using the internet as an outreach tool in competent and creative ways, followed by a special chapter on everyone’s favorite topic, online fundraising and mobilization. We’ll wrap up the series with a sample campaign online outreach plan, plus some resources for further study. So, on to the tools.