Internet fosters statewide grass-roots campaigns

Saturday, September 13, 2008 | 6:51 p.m. CDT; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 14, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri candidates are organizing grass-roots campaigns on the Internet. They are spreading the issues and contacting supporters, all without speaking to anyone face-to-face.

"How often do you get direct contact with a candidate?" said Caleb Jones, campaign manager for Republican attorney general candidate Mike Gibbons. "Through the Internet, we can really facilitate that."

Candidate Web sites have become a staple in political campaigns across the country, but following Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's success using the Internet to mobilize voters, several candidates running for statewide office are embracing words not often heard in a war room: YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace.

"We're running a modern campaign, and that's where young people are," said Oren Shur, spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Nixon.

A study released in June by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 46 percent of Americans have used the Internet to get information on a candidate, to share their views or to mobilize others. The survey was conducted between April 2008 and May 2008 and has a margin of error of +/- 2 points.

The survey also found that 10 percent of Americans have used social networking sites to gather information or become involved. Also, 6 percent of Americans made financial contributions online, compared with 2 percent in 2004.

"Particularly for young voters, social networking sites are a hub," said Aaron Smith, co-author of the study. "Everything they do is filtered through them."

Smith said because Facebook opened to public users in 2006, this is the first election in which it plays a prominent role. Facebook is a social networking Web site where users can create online profiles.

"There's no way of knowing how it will affect voting, or if it even will," Smith said. "Whether it really gets people out to the polls in November is kind of the question right now."

Five of the candidates running for statewide office in Missouri have a Facebook page. There also are several Facebook groups that support the candidates.

"It's a useful tool to reach a very targeted group," said Scott Baker, spokesperson for Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof. "Our Facebook site had a good bit of success. We've gotten a good number of hits there."

The social networking sites provide an opportunity for the candidates to recruit supporters and spread the campaign message to a different demographic.

"It's an online generation - some of the youngest voters are very accustomed to these sites," Baker said. "For some, it's the only way to reach them."

Although the Facebook pages of the two major party gubernatorial candidates have more than 1,000 "friends" each, even the campaigns of some less-recognized candidates are using a wide range of Internet tools.

Brandon Fuhr, spokesman of Democratic state treasurer candidate Clint Zweifel, said the campaign has had a good response on Facebook. Zweifel had almost 150 "friends" as of early September.

"The response is about what we expected," Fuhr said. "It's not at the level of Jay Nixon, but that's not what we expect."

Candidates are utilizing video along with social networking sites by embedding videos on their campaign Web sites and controlling their own YouTube channels.

The role of YouTube in Missouri politics has grown since the site's inception in 2005. The early Missouri political clips primarily were limited to press releases and gaffs. The most widely publicized was video of Nixon using an official state car for political activities. Now, however, some Missouri candidates are providing an expanded message.

"There's a lot of things that need to be said that can't be fit in a 30-second commercial," Baker said.

Baker said YouTube provides an opportunity to rebut what an opponent posts to the site.

"Whatever your opponent does, you can do as well," Baker said. "It's a two-way street."

While campaigns are still holding rallies and sending out print mailers, the shift to online organizing is requiring some candidates to let go of control.

Smith, with the Pew study, said the Internet tools available allow supporters to create and consume information that is relevant to the campaign but "doesn't have the campaign's fingerprints on it at all."

An example is the health care videos created by Missourians on the Nixon YouTube channel or the supporter-submitted messages on the Mike Gibbons for Attorney General Web site.

"It's a very different model and requires campaigns to take a hands-off approach," Smith said. "When people are reticent to move into this area, that's probably their concern, they can't define the campaign narrative."

Beyond using sites such as YouTube and Facebook to recruit supporters, some of the statewide candidates are collecting campaign contributions online, whether directly through their Web site or through third party sites such as ActBlue.

There are no special rules for any kind of state fundraising, whether done in person, by mail or online.



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