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A Note To Presidential Hopefuls


I was having lunch with my good friend Anne today and recalled a conference I attended a while back. Henry Copeland from BlogAds was talking about the crazy guy in the back of the room – not a specific crazy guy, but the type. He cautioned that you should always pay close attention to the crazy guy in the back, because the really oddball question is probably being asked by the guy that sees a bigger picture than you.

Henry went on to say that he had been the crazy guy in the back for a couple of years and would always ask candidates what their strategy was for dealing with blogs and advertising via blogs. It was a couple of years before the idea hit and he was recognized for his wisdom.

Most of those watching online politics seem focused on asking how these candidates have employed the technology of the day. Are they using YouTube, do they have a MySpace page, and how many friends do they have?

Anne asked why it was that I seem to be the only guy asking these campaigns how their online campaign will contribute significantly to their ability to get elected. What is their strategy to win? What are their obstacles? How will their online campaign help seal the deal on Election Day?

Most of the Presidential campaigns have not, at least to the casual observer, answered those questions. Looking at their sites, you have no idea how their web operation is going to move them toward the goal of actually getting votes.

Obama, as I mentioned in my TechPresident post yesterday, comes closest to providing the tools for an effective ground game and the ability to manage it online. By incorporating voter data into his organizing tools, he could have a seriously effective operation. Beyond his effort though, there is little evidence that the campaigns are thinking about how to use technology to win.

The Republicans

If your goal is to counter the view that you’re a cult member, maybe Mitt Romney’s site comes close. His reliance on MittTV may allow people to view him in a light that separates his campaign from the stigma of polygamy and the Mormon Church’s odd rituals. By providing a lot of video, and a lot of scripted testimonials, he may be able to convince people that his religion should be overlooked in favor of the fact he’s a good looking guy with a lot of friends.

It may not be fair to judge Rudy Giuliani on the basis of what is clearly a transitional website, but many will. Most other campaigns have a fully functional site out the door, and Rudy is a delayed entry. He needs to get his site in place quick, or he runs the chance that people begin to view him as too deliberate and slow to campaign effectively.

I previously said McCain is probably our best bet for the general election. I still stand by that, but my doubts about his ability to compete in the primary are compounding daily.

His biggest problems are the disapproval of most in the GOP, and his dourness. I don’t know that a black and white website with only occasional glimpses of color will address the latter. I know that his limited social networking tools are not the best way to address the former. If people don’t like you, giving them a choice between taking marching orders from you, sending your pre-written e-mails to friends or not participating at all may not be a winning strategy.

The Democrats

As I said, Obama is nearly feature complete for where he needs to be at this point. His biggest hurdle is now the same challenge Dean had in 2003. How do you convert your celebrity, and the people gravitating to you solely because of it, into volunteer activity? He has almost all the right tools, but can they convert enthusiasm into activity? The only other clear flaw I see in his operation is his decision to only ask for zip code on his sign-up.

This is one of my pet peeves. Back in 1999, peope didn’t like to give a lot of information online. ComScore recently announced the online commerce figures for 2006 totaled more than $100 billion. It’s time to step out of the Internet stone age and ask for more information. This is especially true in politics because you need more precise data to do sophisticated geo-coding to deliver services like driving directions to polling locations, or distributing invites to your neighbors if you’re having an event in your home.

In the Western US, zip codes encompass very large areas, so you need better information to reach rural voters. Zip codes are fine in New York, Boston, and DC. A whole generation of Internet consultants needs to spend a month in Wyoming to understand the stupidity of their approach.

Sorry, I digress….

Hillary’s website is almost as bad as McCain’s in what it allows you to do for her. My action opportunity for helping her recruit voters is to send the following message:

Hillary Clinton is preparing to run for President. This is a massive undertaking and she needs our help. Building an early base of support is critical to any successful Presidential campaign, so I’m asking you to sign up as a supporter.

This will be a (sic) historic campaign, and I’m hoping that you’ll sign up to be a part of it.

Any custom text you insert appears at the bottom, after the official campaign message, and just above the signature line. For a candidate facing charges that she is less than warm and friendly, why not let me include a paragraph, right at the beginning, that tells people, in my words, why they should support you – or better yet, why I support you.

This is yet another hold over from 1999, and most candidates are making the same mistake. Your detractors are probably not driving people to your website to use your tools against you (with occasional notable exceptions). Get over it, and allow people to use their own words.

Next to Obama, Edwards probably has the best tools – as judged by openness and capability – but it’s a long way between first and second place. His biggest problem is his site looks like it was done by a committee of undergrad graphic design majors. Tidy it up John and focus your message.

Winning

Like I said, the biggest problem I see with most of the candidate sites so far is an inability to see how they’re online campaign will contribute to their victory. Granted, it’s a year before any votes will be cast. At this time, a campaign to introduce your candidacy is necessary. However, there’s no reason you can’t combine an effort to educate, with an effort to lay the groundwork for future voter registration/contact/mobilization.



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Written by Michael Turk