Online Politics Offers Opportunities, Pitfalls

Smart Use of the Web Could Pay the Ultimate Dividend

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One of the most fascinating aspects of the current presidential campaign will be how candidates utilize the Internet to get their messages out -- and how their strategies work for and against them.

By the time next November rolls around, I believe we'll all be amazed at how much influence the web had on individual campaigns and, quite possibly, the final outcome. Howard Dean's widely lauded use of the web in 2004 will seem as outdated as "I Like Ike" buttons when it's all said and done.

I predict the savviest candidates will use the web in these three key ways during the campaign:
  • Image Building: Without the time or space restrictions of traditional advertising, candidates will have unlimited opportunities to define who they are. Hillary Clinton's webisodes featuring husband and former President Bill Clinton are a deliberate effort to change perceptions of her as serious and calculating by positioning her as someone with a sense of humor who's in touch with the times.

  • Platform Proliferation: There's only so much a candidate can do with 15-second sound bites on the evening news. The web, with its infinite number of specialized communities, affords candidates an unprecedented opportunity to deliver specific messages to highly targeted audiences. For instance, Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney, as well as Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards, have shared their thoughts with influential technology blogger Mike Arrington, ruminating on such issues as broadband access and taxing the Internet.

  • Mobilizing the Masses: Ironically, the greatest impact the web may have on this election is fostering a return to old-fashioned politics. Remember the old block captains of yesteryear, who would literally go door-to-door in their neighborhoods stumping for candidates and dragging reluctant voters to the polls? The Internet is the most powerful word-of-mouth tool ever, and smart campaigners will effectively use that power to tap key opinion influencers who can get out the vote.
Interestingly, one of the greatest advantages of the Internet -- the ability to create true two-way dialogue -- could also prove to be its greatest danger. In this age of scripted town-hall meetings and carefully orchestrated media "availabilities," candidates may not be prepared for the withering scrutiny such open forums can invite.

Ultimately, I believe the most successful candidates will be the ones who embrace this interaction -- participating in online chats, conducting "no-holds-barred" exchanges with bloggers, even allowing unfiltered commentary on the their own websites. In the still-unproven world of online politics it's a giant leap of faith ... but one that could pay the ultimate dividend.

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A former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Joe Erwin is president of Erwin-Penland, a 180-person full-service advertising and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C., that is part of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.