How To Use the Internet in Campaigning (updated 9/1/2013)
By William S. Bike
In 1995, candidate Lamar Alexander announced he was entering the presidential race not at a rally or media conference, but on the internet. This action is credited as the beginning of a whole new world of political campaigning. The Jesse Ventura Minnesota gubernatorial campaign of 1998 conquered that world, because he could not have won without the internet. By 2009, for the first time the 18-to-29 year old demographic spent more time online than on watching TV, and the numbers and age spreads of online viewers have only grown since then.
E-technology will never replace grassroots activity, but it has become a mandatory part of campaigning in terms of getting your message out to voters, volunteer recruitment, communicating with staff and volunteers, fundraising, media relations, overcoming an opponent’s superior resources, doing research, and in defending against negative campaigning.
As early as the year 2000, according to Michael Cornfield of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, in six of the eight House and Senate races won by challengers against incumbents that year, the challenger spent less, but had a better web site, and won. That has happened many more times since then.
The Obama campaign of 2008 used the internet better than anyone else had until that time. Howard Dean had been an internet innovator in 2004, but discovered that just because people are clicking on your website doesn’t mean they’ll actually come out and vote. The Obama campaign, however, used the internet to get people engaged.
In February 2008, when Obama raised $55 million in one month, he did not host a single in-person fundraiser. The money all came from small-donation internet contributions.
Opponent Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was tied to the old system where he time was spent courting the old big money donors and promising the status quo to them. Use of the internet freed Obama to spend his time courting donors and voters who wanted change.
The internet makes it easy to get involved, and creates the expectation that of course the viewers/voters will get involved. When Obama came to an event in 2008, there was an expectation that the audience would not just sit there or write checks, but would make phone calls, canvas, and become part of a movement encouraged and fueled by and organized on the internet.
The Obama campaign knew that if the same old Democratic voters were the only ones heading to the polls, Clinton would be the nominee. So they used the internet to create new voters—much like Ronald Reagan did in the pre-internet era when he got conservatives who had been staying home for years to actually vote.
Web site maintenance is inexpensive, and helps level the playing field between candidates with widely different monetary and volunteer and staff resources. A web site can raise money and volunteer staff, and also can take the place of broadcast and print advertising, particularly for the severely underfunded campaign.
Long before you announce, start buying up web site domain names for your campaign. Also, buy web site names that your opponents could use against you. Long before the 2000 race began in earnest, the George W. Bush campaign bought up web sites like www.bushsucks.com to preempt pranksters.
If you need to publicize a page on your site with a particularly long URL, log on to www.tinyurl.com and shorten it to something people can remember and type in easily.
Put your web address on all your campaign literature, and mention it whenever possible. Some candidates put it on the roofs of their cars and campaign buses so helicopter TV cameras will pick it up when covering a campaign caravan.
On your home page, be sure to provide a “share this” function with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media icons so they can share your message with their own friends.
There are many website templates available, so you can get a professional-looking website for the most low-budget campaigns. There even are many website templates already designed for campaigns. Buy one, plug in your information, and you are set.
Here are a few web page creation tips found in Writing Concepts from consultant Jeff Herrington of Jeff Herrington Communications in Dallas.
- Keep quotations short. “Probably no more than one short sentence.”
- Use lots of bullets. Lists are more appropriate for the internet than for print.
- Get to the point. “People go online to retrieve facts fast, not to read.”
- Rely on words, not graphics or design. A graphic may take time to download, and the person may not want to wait.
Joy Hyzny offers a few more in The A3C Connection.
- Use cascading style sheets. These make sure your pages have similar structures and layouts
- Use “relative” font sizes. The user can then read the pages no matter what his or her browser settings.
- Choose text colors that provide enough contrast from the background color. This way, the text will be easy to read both on screen and printed out.
- Guarantee ease of navigation by not requiring multiple mouse clicks to get to basic information.
The home page should contain a photo of the candidate and links to a biography of the candidate, information from news releases, and the candidate’s stand on issues.
Indian politician Lal Krishna Advani has said “a political portal without a blog is like a letter without a signature.” And he was 81 years old when he said it. So make sure your website has a blog, but also make sure that someone else besides the writer vets the posting before it goes online, checking for both content and style.
Also, make sure your web page can collect the e-mail addresses of people who access it. This will be your database of online supporters, all of whom are potential voters, funders, and campaign volunteers.
Political consultants offer CD-ROMs or online links for sale that provide all the information a campaign could need for getting internet access, setting up a web page, and more.
The campaign must publicize the web page and Facebook page on all advertising materials. The pages must be updated frequently, and a staffer must be assigned to the task. For a barebones campaign, this could even mean a volunteer high school or college student, but spend the money on a pro if you have it.
It always has been difficult to get the media to cover lower-ballot races; with the internet, you can do the media’s job for them. You can load up your web site with all the information you want about you and the office you’re seeking.
This makes for a fundamental change in voter contact. Voters formerly were passive recipients of information from campaigns. Now, the internet allows the interested to actively seek and obtain information easily.
Not only will voters who are interested (or whom you make interested by your other campaign efforts) look at it, but the media will, too. With the information right in front of them with no digging required, the chances that they will actually cover your race are increased.
While the initial information on your web site home page should be short and sweet, you can link your home page to additional pages on your web site where you have put everything—news releases, speeches, position papers, and more—on the web. This allows the truly interested voters and the media to get all the information they will ever want.
The Jesse Ventura for governor campaign set up its page to be easy to link into, but difficult to link out of—on purpose. Once surfers entered the Ventura web site, they stayed a while.
Your web page also allows you to “cover” a large geographic area. If you’re running a barebones campaign that just doesn’t have the fieldworkers to get everywhere, heavily promote your web site in your literature, advertising, and e-mails to help do your “fieldwork” for you.
For campaigns with fieldworkers, e-mail and texting enhance the campaigns’ ability to communicate with those fieldworkers and with others related to the campaign, such as the party or multiple campaign offices. Campaign veteran Becky Carroll recommends e-mail or texting over phoning, noting campaigners used to have to “leave a message, call them back if you think they missed the message, plus spend time talking to them once you reached them. When you send an e-mail, boom, it’s there, and you wasted no time.”
E-mail also is vital when something big happens and you need everyone in the campaign to speak with the same voice and message. “In one minute you can send three pages of talking points to hundreds of people,” Carroll noted.
For campaigns without fieldworkers, the Internet can obtain them. The Ventura campaign used the Internet, and no other source, to announce a meeting late in the campaign. More than 250 people attended, and were persuaded to help run a “Jesse Drive to Victory” tour by which a Ventura auto caravan would travel the state. These volunteers contacted friends to attend rallies along the caravan route, and the tour was a huge success. Some of them also became “lead local organizers,” who got their instructions on how to organize a rally from the Ventura web site.
The internet allows even the smallest campaign to provide a daily update for the staff, the public, and the press. It also allows rapid response to a negative attack or other surprise development.
It may even allow the particularly financially strapped campaign to operate without a campaign office. That was true for the Ventura effort, which ran a full campaign through its web site and did not even open a physical office until very late in the race.The internet also provides a different way to interact with intelligent constituents. In one of her campaigns, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California placed a healthcare survey on the internet and averaged more than 100 responses per day.It also provides a different way to use volunteers. With no money to hire data entry professionals, the Ventura campaign asked for volunteers online. It mailed packets of information to the volunteers, who entered the data on behalf of the campaign on their home computers.
Consider also holding a chat session between the candidate and internet users.
Another use of the internet that encourages interaction between voter and campaign is contests—and they don’t even have to have a prize. In 2006, for example, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin held a contest to determine which of six Illinois Democratic House candidates was most popular with voters. Of course, the e-mail addresses of people voting for each of the candidates were mined for future use. And as the cherry on top, the e-mails for the contest contained an ask for donations to the Democratic Congressional campaign.
Monitor your web page constantly, and have a web pro, such as the person whom you’ve already assigned to do the updating, available to quickly deal with any dirty tricks. On election day 2000, a hacker broke into the Republican National Committee’s web page and posted a pro-Al Gore message. So if it can happen to one of the biggest political organizations in the country, it can happen to you.
But make sure the monitor is doing his or her job; neither the staff nor especially the candidate should spend a lot of time surfing the internet. It is a tool, not a toy. If the candidate is a tech-head, you have to get him or her off the computer and out campaigning.
The internet opens the possibility for success of the “flash campaign,” a last-minute development in the political process due to unforeseen circumstances, such as another candidate dropping out, getting involved in a scandal, going to jail, or changing his or her views on a hot topic.
MoveOn.org’s campaign to stop the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton was a flash campaign. On Sept. 18, 1998, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Joan Blades and Wes Boyd launched their web site. By Sept. 29, they had garnered 100,000 names for an anti-impeachment petition. By Oct. 1, they had gotten 80,000 people to call or fax their representatives. They also raised volunteers. More importantly, they raised money: $5 million pledged to year 2000 congressional campaigns. They were racking up numbers that had never been achieved by political organizations that had existed for decades.
MoveOn.org proved that neophytes can enter the political process through the internet and, through judicious use of it, become major players immediately.
The organization is not resting on its laurels. For the 2006 campaign, MoveOn built two new technologies—a touch tone system for reporting on voter calling making it possible for MoveOn to hold calling parties, and an autodailer that allowed volunteers to talk to 70% more voters per hour. Thanks in part to the new technology, Democrats took both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House that year.
Make sure you let relevant online bulletin boards know about your campaign.
As Chicago’s First Ward Alderman Proco Joe Moreno says, “there’s literally no excuse for elected officials not to utilize social media.” Candidates and campaigns too. Hundreds of millions of people are on social media, and some of them check it more frequently than hourly.
Before you start your campaign, Republican strategist Liz Mair recommends that you “do a comprehensive review of what exists about you (and even your friends and family) on sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter…then do what you can to get rid of anything that could be problematic.”
Social media can be used to increase awareness, engage supporters, listen to the community (social media are a two-way street and are not just about getting your message out), and monitoring the competition.
According to Zizi Papacharissi, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago, using social media in politics allows you to sign petitions online, follow the feeds of opinion leaders, and organize and mobilize online, resulting in mobilizing offline.
Social media are viral; post or send something to your friends or followers, and they in turn post or send it to their own friends and followers—people who have no connection to the campaign, but end up getting its message anyway, from a source they trust.
Keep your social media postings fresh. The easiest way to do that is to draw from daily developments on the campaign trail.
Facebook is the world’s most popular social network, and every campaign should be on it. People actually go to Facebook and other social media more than they go to candidates’ and companies official websites.
The Egyptian revolution of 2011 has been called “The Facebook Revolt” because of the way anti-government forces used it to organize, inform, and get people to different locations. If Facebook can overthrow a political leader, it can help elect one, too.
David All of The David All Group and Jerome Armstrong of Webstrong Group recommend the following.
*Create a public page. On Facebook, the campaign can easily disseminate information
- Add content. Videos, notes, blog posts, and news articles—and the campaign can monitor which supporters care about most.
- Update your status. The campaign’s updates show up in Facebook followers newsfeeds and keep the campaign in front of them.
- Ask your supporters to donate their status. Ask them to update their status with the campaign’s messaging.
- Utilize FBML. With Facebook Markup Language, users can sign up for e-mail updates and regular donations.
- Advertise. Facebook allows microtargeting.
- Start a cause. This inspires activism and rewards those who work hard for the campaign.
- Promote an event.
- Use Facebook Connect. Followers can publish stories from the campaign site on their Facebook pages—which will show up on their friends’ news feeds.
- Engage your supporters daily.
The old stereotype of the teenager lying on the bed talking on a princess phone went out with the poodle skirt. Young people in particular, but people of all ages text messages on their cellphones, and the number of text messages sent via cellphone is larger than that of phone calls.
When you think that 92 million texts were sent as votes for the winner of American Idol in 2008, while in the same year’s presidential race Barack Obama won with 66 million votes, you can see the potential of texting.
Dane Strother of media firm Strother-Duffy-Strother, offers some rules for political texting.
- Acquire a shortcode and put it on everything a campaign disseminates. A shortcode is five or six letters or numbers that is essentially a phone number for a text.
- Begin building a list by growing the network organically. Strother suggests holding a contest to see who can forward a text message to as many people as possible.
- Send get-out-the-vote messages on election day.
- Have the candidate hold up his or her phone at all events and encourage people to text in.
- Use text to drive people to the campaign’s website as a way to raise money.
- Deliver talking points from the campaign any time someone may be having a debate with a friend.
- Raise money by texting people who have used a credit card to contribute and ask them if you can charge it again for another donation.
Use text messaging to drive turnout for fundraisers and other events, gather volunteers, or respond to negative attacks.
Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees are building databases of cellphones, so contact them about numbers in your area.
The 2008 Obama organization created a list of more than two million cell phone numbers and used texting throughout the campaign, even announcing Obama’s pick of Joe Biden for vice president via text.
Twitter is a constant conversation consisting of 140-or-fewer postings called “tweets.” It lets the campaign be in contact with followers constantly. In 2008, the Obama campaign amassed 175,000 Twitter followers.
Expect that number to grow substantially for every subsequent Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, and there’s no reason why candidates lower down on the ballot cannot amass thousands of followers as well. More than 100 million people were on Twitter as of 2010. According to a 2011 study by Kantar Media Compete, Twitter is more influential than Facebook in influencing consumer choices, and that presumably goes for political choices as well.
Make sure you add a Tweet button to your campaign’s website.
One thing you can Tweet about is contributions. Put a call out for contributions via Tweet, and Tweet when they come in: "@john_smith gave $25 to my campaign!” to create more excitement.
There’s almost nothing that goes on in the course of a campaign day that the campaign cannot Tweet about.
See Appendix Sixteen: Sample Political Text Messages.
Messages on social media can be nanotargeted, giving down-ballot races more visibility than ever before.
One’s online presence does not merely preach to the choir, as some candidates think. If a number of a person’s friends send a link to him or her, chances are he or she will click on it.
The young people on your campaign staff can easily apply what they already know from using social media in their daily lives—organizing events on Facebook and Twitter, posting photos on Flickr, putting up videos on YouTube. Tap this expertise that is second nature to them.
Speaking of YouTube, and other online video services like Vimeo, be sure and include them in your social media strategy.
By 2008, a Pew Internet and American Life Project study showed, 45% of adult internet uses viewed political videos online, and one-third of them forwarded online political material to friends.
Online video is credited with swinging the 2008 Missouri gubernatorial race to Democratic candidate Jay Nixon, even though the state went Republican in the presidential race on the same ballot. The Nixon campaign excelled at capturing Republican Kenny Hulshof or his staff making gaffes on the campaign trail and posting them on online videos that were viewed by voters and picked up by traditional broadcast media (at the urging of the Nixon campaign, of course).
Keep in mind that an online video doesn’t have to be a slick 30-second TV commercial. Timeliness about an issue that viewers are interested in today is more important than length or production values.
Social media should be used to go beyond chatter and to get people to do things—come to a rally, volunteer, vote. A company called WeTheCitizens has software that ties in online activity and real-world activity, such as calling voters and precinct walking. The software not only can spur action, but can help campaigns keep track of who is doing what.
A service called ooVoo lets up to six users talk together at one time. In 2008, ooVoo held an eight-day online conference for political bloggers. A webcam, microphone and computer are all you need.
Moreno concluded, “I have a closing message for the politicians who don’t use social media: Please stop being ridiculous. Hire someone fresh out of college, sit down with them, and learn it. Your constituents should demand and certainly deserve that.”
William S. Bike is the author of the book Winning Political Campaigns (Smashwords, 2012), a how-to guide on political campaigning now in its third edition, and is senior vice president of the media consulting firm Central Park Communications in Chicago, IL.