Can a candidate’s blog or podcast make a difference in a campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2006? No one knows yet. What we do know from 2004 is that Howard Dean’s groundbreaking blog didn’t help elect him to the presidency — though it did build buzz and make him a short-lived frontrunner in the Democratic race.
A recent study by the Washington PR agency The Bivings Group looked at the state of technology use by all the major Democratic and Republican candidates running for the Senate. (The entire study is here in a PDF file.) The findings weren’t earth-shattering but there were a few interesting trend-lines: Challengers used more sophisticated Internet tools than incumbents; Democrats had Spanish-language sites and used RSS feeds more than Republicans; and only 23% of all candidates had blogs on their websites.
Todd Zeigler, who is head of online PR and helps write The Bivings Report blog for the agency, told me that The Bivings Group has done consulting for the Republican Party and some Republican candidates in the past — though the study takes a non-partisan approach. Zeigler told me the study helped get some hard numbers on campaign websites that went beyond the usual quirky anecdotes reported in the media.
“I think our study is interesting because it looks at whether a large sample of Senate sites use tools like RSS, blogs, podcasts, etc.,” Zeigler said. “In lots of MSM [mainstream media] stories about campaign websites, the focus is on anecdotes, [like] the big or high profile campaign sites that are innovating (your Howard Deans). The reality of most campaign websites is more mundane.”
Here are some of the key findings from the report:
- 97% of Senate candidates have websites in 2006, compared with only 55% in 2002.
- Only 5% of campaigns have podcasts, with 23% having blogs.
- 8% of Republican candidates offered Spanish-language sites, while 22% of Democrats offered them up.
- 24% of Democrats offered RSS feeds, while 13% of Republicans offered RSS.
- Challengers used much more advanced technology than incumbents, perhaps because they have to try so hard to overcome the incumbent advantage. For example, 32% of challengers have blogs compared to 10% of incumbents; 9% of challengers have podcasts, while no incumbents have them; 28% of challengers have RSS feeds, while 3% of incumbents have them.
So does this mean that challengers are going to ride a wave of Web 2.0 technology to electoral victory in the fall? Not likely. What it means is that challengers are taking more risks.
“Incumbents often have a record of past success in the Senate upon which they can focus in order to maintain and build upon their current level of pre-existing support,” the report said. “They are also usually the favorites in these re-election campaigns. For this reason, incumbent websites tend to be safer and less creative than those of challengers. Challengers are more likely to take chances online in an effort to secure votes.”
As I said before, that’s not too surprising. What might be a bit more surprising is how slow the Senate campaigns have been to embrace blogs or podcasts. The fact that only 23% of campaigns have blogs — and many of them are neutered, written by staffers, and don’t include comments — is a bit more perplexing.
“Newspapers are full of stories about blogging by politicians,” the report says. “The success of Howard Dean’s campaign blog was the big online story of the 2004 election cycle. Yet, in reality, not that many campaigns are using this technology. First off, it is important to remember the demographics of the candidates running for office and the limitations of the campaigns themselves. Candidates are extremely busy, and older Americans are unlikely to have the time or inclination to personally participate in the blogosphere.
“For many campaigns, having a blog just doesn’t make strategic sense. Many campaigns also have extremely limited resources, and are hesitant to devote these resources to an activity like blogging. Second, there is a perception among many political consultants and candidates that blogging is a risky strategy. Candidates worry that by fully participating in the blogosphere, they will be dragged further to the left or to the right. Bloggers are typically the most active and ideological of Americans, so there is a fear by some that reaching out to these groups may turn away moderate voters.”
It’s a nice analysis of the situation. It’s rare that a candidate’s blog is really what we consider a blog, with personal thoughts and stories. Instead, blogs are often used by campaigners to whip up supporters or help organize for the election. Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has used his blog as an attack mechanism, with half the posts used to knock down his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey.
So then we’re left with the quirky anecdotes, the story of the rare candidate who actually does blogs or podcasts the right way. Erin Teeling of The Bivings Group said that she liked the blog by Tom Kean, a Republican challenger in New Jersey, for its openness to opposing sides in the blog’s comments. Teeling also cited the blog for Jack Carter, a Democrat running in Nevada. I noticed that Carter’s blog is mainly written by his daughter Sarah, who does a lot of linking to posts by liberal bloggers and mainstream media political coverage.
Perhaps no candidate’s blog outdoes Pete Ashdown’s Campaign Journal. Ashdown, a Democratic candidate in Utah, is running against Sen. Orrin Hatch and has the technological cred of having started the first independent Internet service provider in Utah in 1993. Ashdown has already been interviewed (and basically endorsed by) Wired News columnist Eliot Van Buskirk. Ashdown’s take on Net neutrality is probably the most nuanced and well informed of anyone running for office in the fall.
But will he beat Hatch? That’s doubtful, but if he pulls it off, you’ll be able to mark 2006 as the year that blogs really did make an electoral difference.
Which campaign websites or candidate blogs do you like or dislike? How important are these tools to you in deciding on a candidate for the election? Share your thoughts in the comments below, but let’s try not to descend into partisan bickering, if possible.