The campaign for president is setting precedents left and right — it started earlier than ever, it has more hopefuls than ever, and it is relying on more technology than ever. But will the Web sites, video debates, blogs, twittering, or any other new media tools get the vote out?
The road to the White House is full of babies to kiss, fried foods to sample at county fairs, sweaty hands to shake, pancakes to flip, goofy hats to wear, and stump speeches to nail. All of these moves in the campaign dance are aimed at connecting candidates to voters, generating positive media coverage, and, most importantly, raising money.
On the surface, this presidential election isn’t much different from those that came before — except that this one started a heck of a lot sooner. But everything changes when you turn on your computer, your cell phone, or your BlackBerry — and you come face to face with a whole new world of political communication.
It’s not even 2008, and the election won’t take place until next November, but for months, the campaigns have already been employing a dizzying array of new technologies to reach out and touch you. They hope the methods help to lure your money and your vote. In fact, there are so many gizmos and doodads out there that John Edwards’s Web site features a technical corner — a special glossary that breaks it all down for neophytes. One example: twittering, which is a way to send blog entries on the go and to update people on minute campaign developments via the Internet, cell phones, or wireless handheld devices.
Pity the candidate who doesn’t keep up with the times, because they are a-changin’ moment by moment in this presidential campaign.
No one knows this better than Katie Harbath ’03.
Katie Harbath stays connected to her computer — which catches her in action throughout her marathon workday — as she reaches out via the Web and her old-school telephone to keep political bloggers and supporters connected to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign.
Harbath, deputy e-campaign director for Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani, will spend every waking minute of the next year living at the heart of the fastest-growing aspect of political campaigns — trying to find the latest and best ways to use technology to organize volunteers and hook new supporters. What’s new one day is old the next, which makes her job incredibly difficult — but incredibly fun, too.
“It’s such a vast universe. There’s so much potential that there are just not enough hours in the day to harness it all in as fast as you want to,” Harbath says.
“There’s not enough time in the day,” says Harbath, a Green Bay native who joined Giuliani’s campaign in early 2007 after doing similar work for the Republican Party during the 2004 presidential campaign. “It’s such a vast universe. There’s so much potential that there are just not enough hours in the day to harness it all in as fast as you want to.”
This has been called the YouTube election, but no one knows for sure whether the candidate who has the best Web site, the most MySpace or Facebook friends, or the most sophisticated approach to online organization will win the White House. But one thing is certain: it’s never been easier to get informed, become involved, or be entertained.
Campaigns are using technology to lower the bar of entry into presidential politics and, at the same time, blend those new media activities into the traditional campaign operation. With technology, campaigns can organize supporters locally and nationally, prime them for additional campaign contributions, and provide Internet tools for planning local events — from bowling parties to cookouts — to support their favorite candidate.
So how do you go from new college graduate to working in one of the hottest jobs in politics inside of five years?
Harbath was first hooked into technology when journalism professor Katy Culver ’88, MA’92, PhD’99 tapped her to serve as webmaster for a final class project. “I hated it,” Harbath recalls. “I did not want to be webmaster at all, and it’s funny that I’ve now turned it into being my career. I always told [Culver] she was smarter than I was at that point in time.”
During her senior year, Harbath further honed her Web skills working for the Wisconsin Union Directorate. Then, when she started out with the Republican Party in Washington, she seized an opportunity when the Web staff moved over to President Bush’s re-election campaign. After sending her boss a memo on the topic, Harbath’s boss told her, “Guess what? It’s yours.” She ran www.gop.com, the Republican’s Party’s Web site, throughout the election.
With their vast array of online tools and activities, presidential campaign Web sites can be overwhelming. Some of the choices, such as “click here to donate,” are easy to follow. Other options embrace the potential of interactivity. Many campaigns let you sign up to receive text messages on your cell phone or have campaign updates delivered directly to your blog. Others let you show your creative side; Mitt Romney’s site asked supporters to submit thirty- or sixty-second television ads, which they produced using a selection of clips, audio files, and photos provided by the campaign.
But to execute a successful online game plan, candidates are reaching out beyond their supporters. Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns regularly try to engage influential bloggers in hope of garnering coverage for their candidates. Much of her day, Harbath says, is spent contacting bloggers, making sure they have the latest information from the campaign and arranging interviews with campaign staffers.
“Reporters read [blogs] to get another perspective, and it influences their reporting, and you can see what happens in the blogosphere trickle down into all other forms of media,” she says.
Blogs also can be informative for candidates, giving them an idea of what the party base is thinking and how they might want to emphasize certain issues or positions. This fall, some conservative bloggers successfully pressured Republican candidates to commit to a YouTube debate format, in which presidential contenders answer questions submitted as videos via a Web site called savethedebate.com. The site generated media coverage by posting an open letter to candidates that said “it is fundamentally unacceptable to surrender to the Democrats on one of the most important battlefronts of this election.”
It wasn’t always this way. At the height of the 2004 presidential campaign, while working as a reporter for the Associated Press, I returned a phone message from a newspaper reader. “I read an article in the paper and it mentions something called a B-L-O-G,” said the caller. “What is this B-L-O-G?” To be frank, I wasn’t sure myself, but after finding a rough definition online, I called the woman back and explained that blog was shorthand for Web log, a way for people to post commentary, pictures, links to articles, or opinions online for others to read. I’d be willing to bet that today the caller either has her own blog or, at the very least, reads someone else’s. In 2000, there were only a handful of blogs. By 2004, there were 1.4 million. Today there are 71 million and counting.
Political bloggers used to be seen, at best, as ideologues who were posting messages from home in their pajamas. This summer, all major Democratic candidates for president appeared at a Chicago convention of liberal bloggers to answer questions and address concerns. One of the reasons for this shift is that bloggers sometimes push issues or stories into mainstream media such as newspapers, magazines, radio, or television, says Dietram Scheufele MA’97, PhD’99, a UW journalism professor who studies political communication.
“Blogs can keep issues alive as long as they want,” he says. “But there’s no impact unless traditional media pick it up and, in a way, that’s their success.”
Dietram Scheufele, who captured a self-portrait with his computer’s built-in camera, says most of the students in his UW journalism class don’t realize that Facebook was created as a marketing tool and gives campaigns loads of free information about the demographics and likes and dislikes of would-be supporters.
Although they don’t usually make news, each presidential campaign Web site has a blog of one form or another. Former U.S. senator and actor Fred Thompson sometimes writes his own entries, musing on gun laws in New York or U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro and the contributions of Cuban-Americans such as Gloria Estefan. Other candidates open the floor to family members. On the Five Brothers Blog, Romney’s sons chronicle their adventures as they campaign for their father. While it’s unlikely that any of these tactics will win additional votes, they do serve an important purpose: cementing the connection with existing supporters and letting them feel like campaign insiders in some way, however small.
While the campaigns are actively using technology to focus their messages and introduce their candidates to as many voters as possible, they don’t — and can’t — control everything online. U.S. Senator John McCain probably says it best: “I think every politician’s worst nightmare is YouTube.”
A Web site that allows anyone to post video footage online at no charge, YouTube was certainly the undoing of Virginia Senator George Allen, a strong incumbent and would-be presidential candidate who lost to a challenger after being caught twice on video using an ethnic slur. It became the classic “gotcha moment,” showing how YouTube can bring down a campaign. Michael Xenos, a UW-Madison communication arts professor who studies new media and civic engagement, says the fear that any misstep will end up on YouTube is certain to affect how candidates conduct themselves on the stump.
“All of the candidates are constantly on guard, because someone might catch them saying something,” Xenos says. “It decreases the ability of candidates to pitch one message to one audience and then another message to another audience.”
Ben Relles ’97 is Exhibit A for what can happen when creative people working independently of campaigns come up with ideas that catch fire online. His foremost goal was to make people laugh when he conceived the concept for I’ve Got a Crush ... on Obama, a cheeky music video that hit the Internet during the summer. Featuring a sometimes scantily clad brunette lip-synching and dancing to an R&B song about the presidential candidate, the video’s lyrics include the lines “I cannot wait till 2008. Baby, you’re the best candidate” and “You’re into border security. Let’s break this border between you and me.” For Relles, comedy runs in the family; he first tested the video idea with his cousin Dick Chudnow ’67, who helped found the Kentucky Fried Theater in Madison in the 1970s (see On Wisconsin, Spring 2007).
BarelyPolitical.com is a hot spot on the Web, largely due to founder Ben Relles and Amber Lee Ettinger, better known as Obama Girl, here striking a pose for a laptop camera. Relles’s site was recently sold to an online video startup headed by a former executive from MTV and Nickelodeon networks, who says Relles is “thinking three steps ahead and doesn’t seem confined by some kind of box.”
The video cost two thousand dollars to make and has been viewed online more than 4 million times, making a bigger media splash than an anti-Hillary Clinton ad released last March that spoofed a 1984 Apple computer commercial, depicting Clinton in the Big Brother role. But Relles doesn’t have any illusions about swaying the outcome of the election. “I don’t think it’s going to put [Obama] in the White House, but videos like this certainly could have a small impact,” he says.
“Humor has always played a big role in politics, whether it’s political cartoons or Saturday Night Live or the candidates themselves,” Relles says. “So I don’t think, to that end, that it’s trivializing politics.”
Still, it was clear Relles and co-writer Leah Kauffman, who also sang for the video, struck a chord with Web users and a nerve with political campaigns. Some campaign staff probably had nightmares about what kind of online videos could come from sources who have less fun and more political mischief in mind than Relles did.
When he first watched the final product, Relles says, he was fairly certain he had a YouTube hit. But he never anticipated the mainstream media coverage it ended up getting. Television networks in Japan, France, and Germany, as well as the Al Jazeera network, reported on the video. All the attention resulted in Relles giving a lecture at Fordham University, and a museum in New York has asked to include the video as part of its exhibit on election history and media. Relles used the success of the first video to launch BarelyPolitical.com, a Web site he hopes to grow into a major online destination for political comedy. Relles, Kauffman, and their colleagues have not limited their comedic songwriting talents to the Illinois senator; Giuliani and Romney have been among their subjects, too.
While some complain that Obama Girl and her ilk are trashy and denigrate the political process, Relles points out that the campaigns themselves frequently use humor to try to create a favorable public image or loosen up a stuffy one. Hillary Clinton appeared in a spoof of the finale of the television series The Sopranos with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to announce the selection of her official campaign song, based on votes from supporters.
“Humor has always played a big role in politics, whether it’s political cartoons, Saturday Night Live or the candidates themselves,” Relles says. “So I don’t think, to that end, that it’s trivializing politics.”
Direct feedback from the campaigns has been almost non-existent — save for some mild scolding from Obama about the need to act responsibly when creating content — but Obama backers have been overwhelmingly positive. “We get e-mails all the time from supporters saying 90 percent of them love what we’re doing,” Relles says. “We get those e-mails from people who are in their forties and dance to it with their kids, and we get e-mails from people in college who say, ‘We played it at our house party the other night, and everybody loved it.’ ”
Relles saw the video’s impact firsthand when he attended the Democratic candidates’ YouTube debate in South Carolina this summer. The Obama Girl character, played by actress and model Amber Lee Ettinger, drew a larger crowd than candidates Joe Biden and Dennis Kucinich.
“We’re all a little bit more cognizant of the fact that eyes are on us, and people are paying attention to the fact that this is representative of the way people can impact political communication,” Relles says. “It is interesting to think ... that [for] some people who are watching these videos, this might be their first exposure to one of these candidates.”
While campaigns can’t control what’s on the Web, the medium has mammoth potential to work to their advantage. Underdog candidates without the cash required to pay for expensive TV time can reach people by posting their ads online. Campaigns and third parties that want to try to discredit an opponent can also turn to the online environment, Scheufele says.
“It’s a good thing and a bad thing,” he says, “and I think the campaigns see it the same way. If somebody can create content against you, you can create content against them. It goes both ways, but I do think we’ll see a lot of these innocent efforts like Obama Girl. Some of them really are innocent ... and it’s very funny, and it just balloons. Then some other stuff will just be [produced] by the campaigns, behind the scenes, in the name of somebody else.”
And, as it turns out, there could be more to Obama Girl — and the online videos seeking to equal her success — than just a pretty face. She could lead us to greater knowledge, if we let her. Seriously. Communication arts professor Xenos says such videos could push Web users toward information they might not have found otherwise, since YouTube offers videos of candidates explaining their views on education, immigration, Iraq, and other issues. Some who flocked to YouTube to watch Obama Girl after hearing about it on TV or getting an e-mail from a friend could hang around the Web site a bit longer and discover the site’s huge archive of statements from the presidential candidates.
“Anything they could ever want to know is just served up to them,” Xenos says. “It kind of takes something like the Obama Girl video to drive that — or a close election.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Obama Girl, but just as closely watched by campaigns and political operatives, is Charles Franklin, a UW-Madison political science professor. He’s using his blog, Political Arithmetik, to cut through the spin on polls and other numbers and provide historical context. Think Hillary’s got it wrapped up? To remind you that things can change, he’ll show you data from four years ago when it looked like John Kerry didn’t have a prayer of getting the Democratic presidential nomination.
“The idea that somebody’s unstoppable has plenty of examples in the past where the unstoppable candidate wasn’t and where the hopeless candidate emerged out of nowhere to win,” says Franklin, who studies presidential approval and statistical methodology. His new media venture has touched a nerve with campaigns that worry that his analysis might make its way into the mainstream media. Campaign operatives for Giuliani and Romney have asked and been granted space to respond to Franklin’s posts when they don’t like his conclusions about their prospects. Bill Richardson’s campaign, on the other hand, used an entry that showed his results were improving to crow that he should be considered a top-tier candidate.
“We try hard not to have an ax to grind,” says Franklin. “It’s the one reason I wish it weren’t called a blog, because blogs are traditionally a place of opinion — and often vociferous partisan opinion — and that’s the only thing I’m trying very, very hard not to be.”
In spring 2006, Franklin co-founded a Web site with Mark Blumenthal, a former partner for a Democratic polling firm, who had been blogging since 2004 about polling methodology. The audience for their site, Pollster.com, which is owned and supported by a California polling company, is nowhere near the size of YouTube’s, but MSNBC and other news media have cited it as a source. In the era of horse-race political analysis and news coverage, it’s reassuring to know that someone is providing a nonpartisan take that’s informed about complex technical polling issues, such as margin of error, who is polled, and how questions are worded.
The effect of the Web and technology on elections has been and probably will continue to be overrated. But the potential for significant impact is there: in 2004, voters in Spain organized themselves through text messaging and voted out the Popular Party, a victory newspapers readily attributed to cell phones. Recent years have seen the proliferation of online fund-raising, with presidential candidates collecting millions in small donations thus far. And then there are MySpace and Facebook, the Web-based social networking sites that campaigns are seeing as powerful marketing tools. The sites provide a virtual community for people interested in a particular subject or just a place for Internet users to “hang out” together, where members communicate by voice, chat, instant message, videoconference, and blogs.
The effect of the Web and technology on elections has been and probably will continue to be overrated. But the potential for significant impact is there; in 2004, voters in Spain organized themselves through text messaging and voted out the Popular Party, a victory newspapers readily attributed to cell phones.
“You have thousands of consumers ... providing all of the information that you usually have to spend a lot of money on getting,” says journalism professor Scheufele. “These people tell you exactly what their political leanings are. ... They tell you what they like, what media outlets they use, what music they like. From a campaign perspective, all of a sudden I’m having a very desirable demographic deliver themselves to me with all the information I may possibly want to have.”
But when it comes to Election Day, will Facebook supporters and MySpace friends count as real friends who will walk to the polls? It’s possible. Franklin says a study of party activists in the 1950s found that the reason they got involved in politics was because someone asked them to. The thing they would miss the most if they left? The friends they had made. In other words, ideology isn’t enough.
“Bridging the gap between the ideological commitment or interest that brings someone to the candidate’s Web site [and] the active involvement on the ground, almost surely would require some kind of social connection, a personal connection with people working in the campaign, and that’s where the social networking could start to pay off,” Franklin says.
In 2004 Howard Dean raised tons of money and built a passionate following online, but neither translated into votes. In this election and the ones that follow, the challenge for people like Katie Harbath is finding the most effective ways to convert Web and technology-based activity into actual grassroots on-the-ground action.
“Ultimately, the question is, can you translate what you are doing on the Web to getting people out to vote for you?” she says.
Harbath predicts her work will keep on changing as she heads into future campaigns. But there’s a catch. “I don’t know what my next job will be,” she says, “because I don’t think it exists yet.”