Campaigning Online

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In what elections does internet campaigning work?      

Obama Rally - CC / Flickr

Obama Rally - CC / Flickr

As a campaign consultant I am often asked “Well has anyone actually won an election thanks to their use of the internet?”, “When are we going to see the first internet election?” or “When are we going to see someone using the net in Europe in the way Obama did?” Sorry to disappoint, but all of these questions rather miss the key issue. We already have very net based election campaigns, yet determining the impact of the internet as separate from other factors is the complicated issue.      

Think of it this way: without e-mail between activists and staff, Google searches for the latest opinion poll data, and all the latest news drawn from news sites, modern election campaigns would simply not function. There is to be no return to the use of paper and telephone.      

The important question is about comparative advantage moving forward.      

I would argue that there are four types of elections where an internet campaign can have a decisive impact. These are:      

  • internal party selections or elections
  • elections with little media coverage
  • elections with predominant themes
  • elections with strong characters

I will deal with each of these in turn.      

First of all, party selections or elections. Here the case for a net campaign is incredibly strong. The electorate is small, motivated and often geographically dispersed, especially when a matter concerns the national level of a party. The traditional campaigning means – knocking on doors, tables on street corners, leaflets – do not work or are not cost effective. Often a party only allows a limited biography to be distributed with ballot papers, and speeches at party conventions are too late to change an outcome. So online activities are the vital means to build a reputation and build standing.      

Secondly, any election that is covered little by the mainstream media is ideal for online campaign efforts. This of course applies to internal party selections and elections; debate about these is seldom carried out in the newspapers, television and radio. The same, however, applies to second order elections – local elections and European elections when the media has its eyes elsewhere. If turnout is going to be low then those that will vote are the motivated ones, and possibly motivated enough to look you up online. Equally the election area – a local ward council for example – may not even have its own media (even local newspapers are not always that local), yet web campaigns can be very narrowly and locally targeted.      

Elections fought strongly on policy themes are also a fertile ground for online campaigning, where the net can be used to build bridges between candidates running on platforms that raise certain issues and NGOs and other campaigners raising the same points. The crucial question here is what brand to use – how much of this networking should be on the sites of the party, and how much elsewhere – but clear policy thinking works well online, and matches how an electorate thinks (and Googles).      

Strong candidates and interesting characters are a further important component of a vibrant online campaign. The electorate can see who is behind the information being produced, and can relate to the individuals involved at a much more intimate level than can be done via the mainstream media. The net can also be used to progressively develop a different reputation for an individual than the one portrayed by the regular press. Furthermore a candidate cannot be expected to meet every single voter in a constituency, especially in large urban areas, so effective net campaigning can help bridge this gap.      

To conclude this section, where does it work less well? Things work far less effectively when online activities are nothing more than a reflection of the offline, i.e. parties themselves are to the fore, to the neglect of individuals and policies important to the electorate. This means that effective online campaigning can also contribute to the organisational evolution of traditional parties.      

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  1. Jocelyne 11/11/2010 at 11:15 | Permalink |

    I would just like to illustrate this article with what the EGP did during the launching of the latest campaign for the European elections.
    That is : three bloggers were selected and called “activists”. Each was blogging in English and in their mother tongue. Thus we had four languages : english, french, german and spanish. We were blogging on the EGP blog but also on Facebook and Twitter.
    In that way, the blogging was made very lively, and because we were men and women, from different countries, the approaches were different and could attract different people’s attention.
    I suppose we could do exactly the same thing in a local campaign with men and women, young people, and older people, locals and foreigners in the area, people working in offices and people working in factories etc.
    The weblink to my blog where you can find the blogging during the European elections: