Stateline Story

State Candidates Blaze Digital Campaign Trail

  • October 15, 2004
  • By Alison L. McConnell

A gubernatorial candidate in Vermont runs an online auction to raise money for his campaign. A U.S. Senate candidate from Oklahoma offers personalized greeting cards on his Web site. An Indiana gubernatorial hopeful posts digital photos of his RV tour of the state.

A cruise of state candidates' Web sites this election year uncovers an uneven mix of technical savoire-faire and do-it-yourself projects. The result is a sneak peek into the future of e-campaigning: cheap access to voters and their money, exposure for third-party candidates, and a goldmine of networking prospects for campaign volunteers.

Not that there haven't been bumps on the electronic campaign trail. A mass e-mail sent to North Carolina voters massively offended anti-gambling conservatives. Offerings such as discounted vasectomies had to be pulled from the Vermont online auction before zealous bidders unknowingly violated campaign finance laws. And then there are the occasional dead ends in the form of abandoned "blogs" launched and forgotten by candidates.

"Having an alternate media channel is really important to local and statewide candidates," said Ed Cone, senior writer for Ziff Media. "Here's an inexpensive way to organize people, communicate a message at your discretion and raise a lot of money from people who wouldn't give otherwise."

Voters can request a bumper sticker or yard sign by clicking a graphic on the campaign Web site for U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.). A selection of 12 "e-cards" with photos of U.S. Senate candidate Brad Carson (D) are free on the Oklahoman's campaign site.

Visitors to the Web site of Jeff Seemann, congressional hopeful from Ohio, were asked to play campaign manager and choose his activities for Oct. 7. Top picks were a trip to a local unemployment office and tucking his daughter into bed before visiting with the Mt. Union College Democrats.

Third-party candidates such as Cris Ericson, who is on the Vermont ballot for governor and U.S. senator, use the World Wide Web because it is a cheap way to reach voters when there's no chance of being seen on television in campaign commercials and debates. Ericson showcases her mother's paintings while inviting voters to browse among her stances on issues from a drop-down menu.

Campaigns have used Web sites to broadcast TV and radio ads since 1998, according to Michael Cornfield, a senior research consultant for the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The project is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.

What's new this election year is the use of multimedia as evidence on political sites, Cornfield said. After the vice-presidential debate, some sites posted a video clip of Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic Sen. John Edwards at a past political event, refuting Cheney's comment that he had never met Edwards before the debate.

Web logs online journals often referred to as "blogs" are cheap yet strategic campaign tools. After the success of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's "Blog For America" in the Democratic presidential primary, other candidates began using online journals to build grassroots support.

Even though national candidates use many of the newest bells and whistles in online campaigns, Cornfield points to Minnesota state Rep. Ray Cox (R) as the first "genuine" campaign blogger. Cox, 53, has been blogging since December 2002 about three months before Dean started and said he had never even sent an e-mail before then. Cox's Democratic opponent, David Bly, has been blogging since August 2003.

A devoted blogger, Cox adds several entries each week sometimes twice a day in his online attempt to rally the local electorate. He filed this scintillating excerpt after his Oct. 13 visit to a charter school:

"I explained to the students that I have always supported the Charter movement and was and (sic) early and steady supporter in my service on the Northfield school board. They were pleased to hear that. I told them Minnesota is a leader in the nation for Charter schools and I will work to continue to see..."

The site for gubernatorial candidate Mitch Daniels (R), who faces incumbent Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan, contains a detailed blog with photos of his 92-county RV trips around Indiana.

And a digital press release Oct. 14 from U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama's (D) blog announced that C-SPAN will air his debate with opponent Alan Keyes (R) on national television.

Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire (D) and former state Sen. Dino Rossi (R), candidates for governor, claim to have blogs on their Web sites, as does Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, Vermont gubernatorial candidate. But according to Cornfield, "They ain't blogs." He described them as "online diaries" because they lack the liveliness of true blogs.

"Dino was all over the place in western Washington on Tuesday," begins the Oct. 5 entry to Rossi's blog.

Other blog necessities absent from Rossi's site are links to referenced Web sites and the means for visitors to post responses, both of which are on Gregoire's blog. Clavelle's blog also lacks links and has not been updated since its launch.

"Welcome to the web journal/weblog/blog for the Clavelle campaign!" John Odum, field director for the campaign, wrote for the blog's sole entry, dated Aug. 5.

Beyond blogs, many campaigns use e-mail newsletters to quickly disseminate information to hundreds or thousands of supporters. "Team DeMint" (which supports U.S. Senate hopeful Jim DeMint in South Carolina), the "49er Club" (Alaska incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski) and the "Barack Brigade" (Obama) stay connected via e-mail lists that keep readers abreast of volunteer opportunities and fund-raising events.

But the detested practice of spamming voters seems to be out. Campaigns started flooding computer in-boxes with unsolicited e-mail in the late '90s, but the tactic lost its novelty in 2001, according to Cornfield.

It spoiled completely in 2002 when the campaign for California gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones (R) sent about one million e-mails to in- and out-of-state residents through a third-party marketer. Not only did critics say the campaign broke common courtesy rules of the Internet called "Netiquette" the tactic was considered a huge faux pas in a state with an anti-spam law.

The North Carolina GOP made a different gaffe this election year when it e-mailed voters about a promotion called "Lucky 7."

Designed to help voters pick a straight Republican ticket (by reminding them to check seven boxes on their ballot one for President Bush, one for each of the five Republican judicial candidates and one to vote a straight party ticket in all other state races), the promotion angered conservatives who caught the lottery reference. They said the Web message was inappropriate given the state party's strict anti-gambling stance.

Sometimes campaign strategists are too creative for their own good. The campaign for Clavelle (D), the challenger to Vermont's incumbent Gov. Jim Douglas (R), set up an online auction to fatten his war chest. Items on the virtual auction block included a weeklong escape in a Tuscan villa valued at $1,000, an original piece of art valued at $3,000 and 10 vasectomies with starting bids of $75.

After questions arose about whether bidding could surpass Vermont's $400 limit on campaign contributions from individuals, officials temporarily halted the auction.

Instead of the villa vacation, donors now can battle in a bidding war over a photo op and personal conversation with former presidential candidate and fellow Vermonter Howard Dean (current bid -- $70). Other items, such as a civil union ceremony (opening bid -- $40), also are available on the site. Vermont is the only state to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.

To top it off, campaign managers say the Internet is an effective and speedy way to raise money because constituents are becoming more Web-savvy. Online contributions tend to be small but add up quickly. U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D) from North Carolina raised more than $200,000 in online donations, according to Ziff Media's Cone.

While it seems unlikely that the Internet will replace more traditional vote-getting techniques, campaign managers and experts asserted that more Web features and blogs will be used by future candidates.

"The Web is supplementing all aspects of the process," said Jake Maas, campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "Candidates will continue to find new and creative ways to use it."