TOPICS > Politics

Presidential Candidates Use Web to Boost Campaigns

June 8, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how presidential candidates are using the Web to reach voters. Jeffrey Brown has this Campaign ’08 Media Unit story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many months before the first presidential primary, candidates are doing what they’ve long done: pressing the flesh, working the phones, making the rounds of TV talk shows.

But more and more, the campaign is being waged in cyberspace, as candidates incorporate technology to gain advantage and try to learn from recent elections. These days, the campaign means live video of events online, opportunities to join up and talk back in social networking sites, podcasts of speeches, cell phone updates of the latest developments, and more.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: Hi, I’ve got great news. We’re already more than halfway to our goal.

JEFFREY BROWN: To one degree or another, every candidate is embracing technology. One, Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, let us watch his effort recently at his Boston headquarters. At this event, called “Sign Up for America,” Romney celebrated progress towards acquiring over 30,000 new supporters in 24 hours…

CALL CENTER VOLUNTEER: You can volunteer or make a contribution.

JEFFREY BROWN: … 60 percent of those via the internet.

MITT ROMNEY: This is a political rally. This is a 21st-century political rally. See, in the past, when they had political rallies, they came together on the town green and, you know, you got as big a crowd as you could get. And we decided to take it into the 21st century. And instead of just having it in a town, we’d have it in the entire country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Candidates have signed up online specialists, a new and mostly quite young breed of political operative. Stephen Smith , 25, is Romney’s director of online communications.

STEPHEN SMITH, Romney for President: We don’t want to do something online just because it builds buzz. I mean, buzz is nice, but we’re doing things online for the same reason that we do things offline. It’s to raise money, to spread the governor’s message, and to ultimately mobilize votes in the early primary states and then across America.

Use of blogs, online video

JEFFREY BROWN: So far, Romney and other Republicans trail the leading Democrats -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards -- in the online battle, measured by Web site visits, funds raised, and presence on social networking sites like MySpace. But the Romney campaign clearly sees the Internet as an important tool to help introduce its candidate, who's less-known nationally than some others in the race.

To that end, the site features a "Five Brothers' Blog," written primarily by Romney's five sons. The candidate's wife, Ann Romney, also posts personal impressions. Romney's page on MySpace, the popular Internet site where people create their own profiles, has a slide show of the campaign. Romney has more than 20,000 friends on MySpace and was also the first Republican candidate to be on Facebook, which is frequented by millions of young people.

On YouTube, where users share their own videos and watch others, the governor's team has posted 140 videos, which have been viewed some 900,000 times.

MITT ROMNEY: Consider this an open forum, and please post a video...

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 70 users have responded with their own videos so far.

VIDEO HOST: Mindy, how are we doing?

MINDY FINN, Romney Director of E-Strategy: We're doing great. We got call centers in 21 states across the nation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mindy Finn, Romney's director of e-strategy, is 26 and already a veteran of the 2004 Bush campaign, the Republican National Committee, and the Santorum for Senate campaign.

MINDY FINN: We connect people who have like-minded attributes. It allows you to put people together who may not have joined together otherwise, because they wouldn't know that they have similar interests. I call it a hypermedia campaign, where multiple mediums are really working together to project the message, and certainly we want to engage with all of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: One medium is television, of course, but in this case, television online. For "Mitt TV," a campaign camera crew shadows the candidate, gathering footage. The candidate's youngest son, Tag, serves as host.

VIDEOGRAPHER: All right, Tagg, whenever you're ready.

TAGG ROMNEY, Son of Mitt Romney: So, Dad, how are your calls going for "Sign Up America"?

MITT ROMNEY: It's important to remind people that it's the ground team we're building today. The air wars, that comes later. It's the ground team we need.

JEFFREY BROWN: After a few tweaks...

VIDEOGRAPHER: Re-ask one of those questions.

TAGG ROMNEY: So, Dad, send any e-mails out recently?

JEFFREY BROWN: The digital tape is hustled down the hall here to the edit room...

VIDEO EDITOR: There's that spot right about there.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... where, in three minutes, an excerpt of the father-son exchange is inserted into a video package and posted online.

MITT ROMNEY: It's important to remind people that it's the ground team we're building today.


Internet a 'junior partner'

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, Michael Cornfield, a professor at George Washington University and analyst, says that, for all its potential, the Internet is still a junior partner on most campaigns.

MICHAEL CORNFIELD, All the presidential campaigns in the first quarter of 2007, they spent about $2.5 million on Internet services, Internet staffs, Internet technologies; $2.5 million spread among a double-digit number of candidates is not a lot of money.

They're getting incredible returns for their $2.5 million. They pulled in about $25 million to $30 million online through fundraising, which is a 10 times return, which is pretty darn good.

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

MICHAEL CORNFIELD: Because it's complicated, and it's new. The Internet is not just one medium; it's a platform 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 then integrate them, and come up with rules of thumb. It's hard.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's also hard on the Internet is controlling the message, as seen in 2006 when Virginia Senator George Allen's "macaca" gaffe flew around the Web.

MICHAEL CORNFIELD: When Jim Webb defeated George Allen in Virginia, everybody in the political community stood up and noticed, because that was the first time that Internet politicking had knocked someone out.

Controlling the message

JEFFREY BROWN: The Romney campaign monitors how its effort is being played online, as well as over the airwaves. Here in the "War Room," the young staffers and volunteers check out the latest polls and watch for anything that might hurt their candidate. When a 13-year-old video of Romney defending a woman's right to an abortion appeared on YouTube...

MITT ROMNEY: I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... the candidate quickly tried to clarify his current position in the same medium. His campaign posted a tape of Romney declaring that he's evolved into a social conservative.

MITT ROMNEY: Of course, I was wrong on some issues back then. I'm not embarrassed to admit that. And I think most of us learn with experience; I know I certainly have.

MINDY FINN: And people weren't allowed to sit with that information without seeing a proactive, positive message on the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another control problem on the Internet is that video can be altered or remixed, as when a supporter of Barack Obama re-edited a famous ad, casting Hillary Clinton as "Big Brother."

As they try new approaches, campaigns are also wary of not losing sight of the end goal. In 2004, Howard Dean generated a great deal of online interest, but that didn't translate to enough votes.

MICHAEL CORNFIELD: 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, Romney's e-operatives are confident they can do just that.

STEPHEN SMITH: The point of all of the kind of technological efforts we have is to, you know, take the casually interested or the supporter and build them into someone who's really a believer in Governor Romney and turn evangelist for the effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: No one doubts that the cyberspace campaign will grow in this and future elections, but the precise mix of strategies, on- and off-line, is still being developed day by day.