Campaigns evolving amid new technologies to attract voters

John Edwards launched his presidential bid on YouTube, asking viewers to text-message him. Hillary Rodham Clinton threw her hat in the ring in a more controlled fashion, with a video posting to her website. Then Barack Obama stole some of her thunder by announcing his White House aspirations in a video that quickly flew around the Internet. Now the Illinois senator is rocketing toward a half-million friends on the social-networking site Facebook.com.

The Internet and mobile technology have fed an explosion in person-to-person communication and so-called viral marketing that are shaping up to be powerful forces in the 2008 election. The combination will create enormous opportunities for campaigns but also raises the risk that an unguarded moment will spread at lightning speed to sink a candidacy, political consultants say.

“The president [elected in 2008] will look back and recall a distinct Internet moment that gave the campaign that winning momentum. One or more of the candidates will have a distinct ‘macaca’ or YouTube moment,” Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist, predicted, referring to the gaffe that derailed then-Sen. George Allen’s (R-Va.) reelection campaign.

Though the majority of campaign dollars still will flow to television spots, campaigns will dabble in all sorts of creative communications — from mobile ads to video games — that they hope will catch fire among Internet and cell phone users.

“’07 will be a year of massive experimentation. Much more of the advertising is going to be outside the campaigns,” Simon Rosenberg, the president of NDN, a progressive think tank, said.

It is more critical for campaigns to harness the Internet this election because that’s where so many of the voters will be, political consultants say.

The share of Americans who cite the Web as their main source of political news doubled to 15 percent in 2006 from the previous midterm election in 2002, according to a study released in January by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Nearly a third of respondents said they used the Web to get information on the 2006 campaign and swapped views on the race over e-mail, the study found.

That is only likely to grow as the proportion of American homes with high-speed Internet connections increases. At roughly 45 percent today, broadband is expected to reach well over half the electorate next year.

Meanwhile, print and broadcast media are seeing their audiences erode, and the popularity of digital video recorders (DVRs) is blunting the force of television ads. Users of TiVo, the most popular DVR service, reportedly zapped a not-insignificant share of the political ads that barraged them in the 2006 campaign.

“Political campaigns are losing the ability to shove information down people’s throats,” a leading Democratic direct-mail consultant, Hal Malchow, said.

Without a captive audience, campaigns are under far more pressure to lure people to participate in politics. Campaigns will be attempting to reach more voters more often via e-mail. They will try to touch swing voters by posting clips on YouTube. And the use of text-messaging, campaign ringtones and social-networking sites will become par for the course.

“It is a very competitive media environment and that is creating a competitive burden for anyone that is trying to cut through that clutter,” Chuck DeFeo, who managed the Internet strategy for the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, said.

As most cell phones will be Internet-enabled by 2008, mobile advertising will play a role in the campaign. But it will be somewhat hampered by the lack of one single technical standard for the country.

Internet ads — a mere 3 percent of political advertising in 2004 — are poised to eat up a larger share of campaign budgets.

Already, fledgling campaigns are buying up Google search ads, which can be targeted to a geographic area. One search for “Hillary Clinton” yielded a sponsored link paid for by Obama’s campaign and another proclaiming “Say No to Hillary,” sponsored by the Conservative Book Club.

With so many voters gathering political information online, campaigns will have to be vigilant about shaping their candidate’s Internet image, argued Louis Ubinas, an NDN fellow and a director in the media group at McKinsey & Company, a consulting firm. That includes trolling blogs and aggressively managing what pops up on Google searches for their own candidate’s and their opponents’ names.

“If you’re not buying keywords or managing search optimization, you’re not doing a thing,” he said.

And there are the video-camera phones and YouTube for campaigns to worry about. A misstep such as John Kerry’s windsurfing jaunt in the 2004 campaign today would be suicide, Ubinas warned. “The odds of someone catching that moment on a cell phone video camera are 100 percent.”

Campaign staff will no doubt be coaching candidates how to avoid bloopers. “They’re going to go to YouTube gaffe-prevention training,” the head of the campaign media analysis group at TNS Media Intelligence, Evan Tracey, predicted.

All this scrutiny will be sure to make the candidates sweat, but may also mean that voters get more genuine candidates.

“Anyone can fake it for a 30-second TV ad, but no one can fake it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Trippi said. “We’re going to see authentic candidates, warts and all. But even with the warts, we like ’em.”