TOPICS > Politics

Extended Interview: Expert Analyzes Online Campaign Strategies

June 8, 2007 at 5:20 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you define the importance of the internet for a presidential campaign today?

MIKE CORNFIELD: I would compare it to the use of energy or the use of money. Which is to say you want to be internet efficient.

In everything that you do, just as you plug all of your appliances into electricity, you plug all your communications into the internet, or really into information technology, because we have to consider cell phones part of the internet and we have to consider your databases part of the internet. And the campaigns that are doing well are internet efficient. They are getting the most return for the least amount of, or the smartest amount of effort.

So what it is you want, it could be money, it could be volunteers, it could be spin control or image management, all of these things involve the internet and the internet in connection with the old media.

Online advertising

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the internet as a tool to get your message out?

MIKE CORNFIELD: With the exception of online advertising, which we should come back to, it's very hard to put a particular message in front of a particular group of people at a particular time through the internet, which is why direct mail and television and print and interviews with mass media press are still important.

JEFFREY BORWN: You wanted to come back to...

MIKE CORNFIELD: I wanted to come back to online advertising, because online advertising is taking off in the commercial sector, and I think one of the things we should be watching for this year and next year, 2008, is a surge in online advertising for political purposes.

Now the trick is that the online ads aren't going to look like television ads. It's not the videos and it's not even the banner ads, the ones that look like they could be in glossy magazines. The key ads are the ads that appear as sponsored links on the pages of search engines, Google, MSN, Yahoo.

So for example, when I want to learn something about the immigration debate that's going on this week, I might very well if I were one of the 60 million who are politically engaged through the internet, or even one of the 150 million who are online in the United States, I might type the word immigration into a search engine, or the word amnesty in immigration or immigration bill, and then a page is going to come back on Google or MSN and it's going to show me, on one column it's going to show me the links that are the most popular according to the secret algorithms of the, of the companies, but on the right side there's going to be a section, and sometimes at the top with a blue background there's going to be a section that are paid advertisements.

And that is a growth area for internet politicking, putting links to your site, your campaign Web site along with a sentence or two of why your position is interesting in front of people who are curious about that particular issue at that particular time.

JEFFREY BROWN: So it'll say want to know more about immigration policy, come to Barack, Mitt Romney.


Internet as 'junior partner'

JEFFREY BROWN: But step back even further, I mean do they see this now as integral, as sort of equal, as just still a junior partner? As they're gearing up to go here, what role in the large sense does the internet play?

MIKE CORNFIELD: I don't think they, I think junior partner comes closest to it. If you look at how much the campaigns spend, and spending is always a good indication of priority, the campaigns spent, all the presidential campaigns in the first quarter of 2007, they spent about 2.5 million dollars on internet services, internet staffs, internet technologies. 2.5 million spread among a double-digit number of candidates is not a lot of money. It still pales besides the two giants in the campaigning world, which are direct mail and, of course, television. That said, they're getting incredible returns for their 2.5 million.

They pulled in about 25 to 30 million dollars online through fundraising, which is a 10 times return, which is pretty darn good. And I think most of them recognize that there's more to be gotten out there, not just in terms of money, but in terms of generating enthusiasm, and then when we finally get to the time when it's time to vote, in terms of mobilizing. So there's a steady increase, but still junior partner.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why do you think it is still as small as it is?

MIKE CORNFIELD: Because it's complicated. And it's new. The internet is not just one medium; it's a platform in which all the other media run through. So you can use the internet as a telephone, a television, a printing press, a movie studio, and because there are so many different aspects to it, it takes a while to learn how to use each of the aspects and to integrate them and and come up with rules of thumb.

There's a notion out there that there ought to be a digital rope line. The rope line being the place where the candidate after some sort of public appearance goes and mingles with the vaux populi, shakes hands, kisses babies.

JEFFREY BROWN: We've seen it all the time.

MIKE CORNFIELD: We've seen it all the time, and you don't give a full speech. You don't, you say hi, how are you, glad you're here, and the person says, yes, I remember my father campaigned for your father when he ran 20 years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: And sometimes hands him a baby.

MIKE CORNFIELD: Hands him a baby. Well you can't hand a baby through the internet, but you can have conversations. So maybe what the candidates should be doing is at the behest of their campaigns, just as they're forced to sit down in a chair and dial on the telephone for dollars so many hours a day, maybe they should take a half hour a day and answer their email. And hi, how are you, thanks for writing. That's a good suggestion. I can't wait to come to Peoria. Whatever. It doesn't have to be profound, but it would create the sense and it wouldn't be artificial, it would be real, that this campaigner cares about communicating through the internet with people who are interested in communicating with him or her.

That would be a giant step forward in maximizing the peer to peer conversational technical potential of the internet as it applies to politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: I get the sense that some campaigns are doing that. Or thinking about it.

MIKE CORNFIELD: I think they're thinking about it, I think they've been inhibited from doing it because they're afraid that somehow the messages will get distorted or taken out of context.

They're used to very controlled situations, particularly in putting their candidates in that situation. There are formal town halls and email sessions, but I'm talking about something more casual.

The 'new normal'

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible for a campaign to become too Web obsessed?

MIKE CORNFIELD: I know of some campaigns that have misinterpreted, over interpreted the enthusiasm that they get from their Web outreach and concluded they're in a much better situation than they are. So, Web obsessed, no. But drawing the wrong inferences from a spike on the Web, yes.

And what they have to remind themselves is, is that there will be many virtual primaries on the internet this year. There will be another MoveOn primary. There will be a MySpace primary and a YouTube primary, and a Facebook primary and all sorts of metaphorical primaries. But none of them delivers delegates and that's what they have to remember.

JEFFREY BROWN: The future. You look ahead now to 2012, 2016, 2020. Does the campaign happen more and more online?

MIKE CORNFIELD: I think the distinction between online and off-line will vanish.


MIKE CORNFIELD: Vanish. Which is to say there will be an online dimension to every aspect of campaigning. There will be, when a candidate actually in the flesh kisses the baby, there will be a photograph of it and it will be up on Flickr or whatever the photo depository site that is popular within seconds. It will become so marbled in, just like electricity is, that you won't notice it.

That's where we're heading, where this won't become a sidebar story, but it will become the new normal.