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Candidate Meets Web: Internet Campaign Directors on What Worked and What Didn't in 2008

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NEW YORK, June 23, Lunch – The final morning discussion focused on the 2008 online political campaigns, what worked and what didn’t, and the insiders’ perspective from the staffers who directed the Internet campaigns for the major candidates. On the panel, from left to right between moderators Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry are Mark Soohoo, in charge of Internet Communications for John McCain; Justine Lam, who spearheaded Ron Paul’s Internet campaign; Peter Daou, Internet Director for Hillary Clinton; Joe Rospars, New Media Director for Barack Obama; Mindy Finn, Online Strategist for Mitt Romney 2008; and Tracy Russo, Chief Blogger for John Edwards 2008.

The essential question for the panel is “has the Internet finally arrived as a campaign tool with a power that politicians both understand and can harness?” The essential answer is that not only do politicians understand the Internet and its influence, they’re even watching “that YouTube channel!”

Peter Daou was points to the fact that Hillary Clinton began her official campaign online as a sign of the importance of Internet marketing. For all of the candidates, websites and online video channels are not just part of a campaign, they now are a prerequisite and are integral to campaign preparation and launch. As Peter says, “the Internet arrived this election cycle.”

For John Edwards campaign, the power of the Internet was evident in the fact that he was able to extend his campaign beyond what could have been a debilitating loss in the Iowa caucuses. Likewise, the Clinton campaign may have been able to remain in the race longer because of the ease with which additional funding can be quickly obtained through online channels. Tracy Russo also cites the importance of senior staff reserving a seat at the strategy table for the Internet campaign staff as being a key enabler for increased utilization of the web during this cycle.

So the game has changed, but is this because the candidates are utilizing new media tools or just their staffs? The moderators are wondering how much the candidates actually contribute to online campaigns. Joe Rospars from Barack Obama’s staff says the candidates are definitely involved and have a particular interest in engaging the online community. Tracy Russo agrees and adds that nowadays, it’s no longer a staffer proposing and issue to a candidate or strategist, it’s a staffer backed by hundreds of bloggers and thousands of commenters who care about a particular issue that may not otherwise be brought to the candidate’s attention. But do the candidates actually respond to emails from supporters? Mr. Rospars says “you’d be surprised how many folks are able to get direct contact w/ candidates and campaign managers.”

Reflecting on the work of the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign, Mindy Finn reminds the audience that it’s not just the online campaign that matters, and what she found most significant in her 2004 efforts was the way the campaign was able to connect Internet marketing to offline activities. For example, the Internet was utilized by the Bush staff to get out the message and motivate the grass roots to canvass and get out the vote on election day. Ms. Finn says it was about “empowering people who want to be a volunteer and putting tools and messages in their hands that they can then distribute to their friends.”

Mark Soohoo, a member of John McCain’s Internet Communications team, seemed to value this approach as well and in defense of his candidates less tech-savvy image stated that “you don’t necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country…John McCain is aware of the Internet…he’s a man with a long history of understanding a range of issues.”

Expect the next big moment for Internet campaign marketing to arrive when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama reach a deal on sharing their invaluable email lists. Peter Daou who still serves as Hillary’s Internet Director says some “unity emails” to Democratic supporters have already been sent out and that the Clinton staff is enthusiastic to contribute to Barack Obama’s campaign in any way possible.

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