Campaigners always talk about how they want to shape their message, define themselves and do all of that before their opponents have a chance to do it for them. They spend millions of dollars buying television and radio time to flood our TVs with commercials showing their smiling yet concerned faces. So it would seem practical to put a lot of effort into a website, which can be viewed at any time of day and is relatively cheap to maintain.
Turns out, websites are so yesterday.
Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst, said efforts have shifted a bit toward other social networking sites, away from traditional websites.
“Candidates need to go where the voters are,” Spiliotes said. “With things like Facebook and Twitter, there’s a convenience factor, it’s an opportunity for the candidates to go where the action is.”
From a political standpoint, moving away from a stagnant website to a social connector makes sense. Candidates can instantaneously reach out to supporters through Facebook and Twitter, much more quickly than they could through a website, which requires the intended recipient to make the conscious decision of going there first.
“There’s greater expectation with that stuff,” Spiliotes said regarding how often social networking sites are updated versus websites. “People are constantly checking Facebook ... I think campaigns need to feed this stuff in order to keep people interested.”
This is where it must be beneficial to have a skilled and seasoned political adviser. There is such a fine line between keeping your supporters interested and inundating them with unnecessary information. People want a president who can lead, not one who has one eye on America’s future and the other eye looking down at a Blackberry.
Based on a cursory examination of the candidates’ personal Twitter pages, none seem to be over-tweeting. In fact, the most frequent tweeter over the past few days was the 75-year-old Ron Paul. Yet the question must be asked: how do these Tweets help us know a candidate better? Do we want to vote for Rick Santorum more because we know he “Had a great tour & press conf on jobs at Weingard Co in Burlington IA. Stopping now @ Hy-Vee in Muscatine for a late lunch?”
The answer is probably no. But what these tweets do is make the candidate more familiar. They are virtual retail politics. In New Hampshire, we want candidates to shake our hands at parades and pop into our diners to say hello. These quick encounters probably don’t shed much light on the candidate’s policy and over-arching vision for America, but they do give the candidate an identity. Twitter — and it can be debated about what this says about where we are as a culture — gives a candidate a virtual identity, which is equally important. And it is much easier than marching five miles at a Fourth of July parade.
Proving just how powerful tools like Twitter have become, President Obama held the first-ever Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday, July 6.
“It’s remarkable the extent the Web has given us tools to rethink traditional politics,” Spiliotes said. “Now it’s moving more to social networking. Websites still provide a clearinghouse.”
Websites are still important sources of information about background, scheduling and fundraising, among other things.
“People are more likely to go to a website if they already have some interest in interacting with a campaign,” Spiliotes said.
This becomes very clear when you go to the website of Mitt Romney (www.mittromney.com) or Michele Bachmann (www.michelebachmann.com). Before learning about the issues, you are taken to a large window that allows you to either donate or volunteer. To the casual voter, who is perhaps going to the website to check out a candidate’s stance on a particular issue, this can be a major turn-off. It seems a bit desperate, especially when you read about the piles of cash these candidates are hauling in every quarter.
Once voters get past the “donate screen,” their impression of the candidate can be influenced by what they find online. The quality of a website might have an impact on the margins, particularly for people who are tentative with their support. If someone on the fence has a bad experience at a website for the first time, that could affect their support, Spiliotes said.
But, as it turns out, it is not likely to turn off too many voters. Because, as Spiliotes noted, the average person doesn’t go to every candidate’s website when making a decision in a primary.