Senate Campaigns Lag Online


Candidates for the United States Senate are too conservative.

I don't mean their politics, but their web strategies.

I wrote in a recent newspaper column that I was surprised that Kay Hagan, the Democratic challenger for Elizabeth Dole's Senate seat in North Carolina, hadn't made better use of the internet.

"By this point in the game, for example, she should have a social network in place to connect volunteers in each of North Carolina's 100 counties...In a year when Obama has energized North Carolina Democrats and used the Internet with ground-breaking effectiveness, the online campaign looks like a missed opportunity for Hagan."

Now a report (PDF here, summary here) from The Bivings Group on the use of the net in Senatorial campaigns says that the Hagan campaign is not alone: "Many of the features being used to great effect by Presidential campaigns are not being used by Senate candidates. None of the sites reviewed in the study had a Barack Obama-style social network built into their site."

(The report is based on an analysis of campaign websites as of a couple of months ago; while I suspect progress has been made in some cases, I believe that establishing a meaningful web presence takes time, so at the very least campaigns have squandered valuable months in setting up social nets and other tools.)

I wonder why the Senate campaigns are so slow to catch on. It seems to me that states provide an excellent laboratory for social nets and other online tools -- large enough to provide the scale needed to make web marketing work, but small enough to be manageable.

A 100-county strategy was suggested to a previous NC candidate, Erskine Bowles, in 2004; the campaign said it was a great idea, then pretty much ignored it. Since then, social networking technology has come a long way, making the strategy much easier to execute, but campaigns in North Carolina and other states still lag the curve. (I publish my ideas on web politics, including the 100 county meme, at my personal blog and in my newspaper column, and am willing to talk with campaigns from either party; I do not get paid for any such conversations).

Another area where state-wide candidates lag, according to the report: "[F]eatures like house parties and real time counters ('money bombs') that have been core features in many 2008 Presidential campaigns are not used to a great degree by Senate campaigns."

As we've seen, at least one statewide candidate in NC -- Libertarian gubernatorial hopeful Mike Munger -- has used a money bomb with good effect. Munger is an insurgent, and needs all the help he can get. While the Bivings report says incumbents are using the web about as much as challengers in Senate races, it seems that both major parties are still quite conservative in what they actually do online.