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Candidate sites have little impact on LA campaigning

The World Wide Web has come a long way, but it’s not going to come close to changing the nature of political campaigning, especially in Louisiana.

Myself and a handful of others were the first to conduct research into the use of the Web in campaigning about a decade ago, and what we discovered then largely holds true today: for most political interaction, the Web remains a one-way street where a candidate makes information (largely controlled by him) available and solicits some benefit (like a donation or offer to assist) from the attentive public. Or, as I phrased it in those days, the Web was a “virtual billboard.”

In the late 1990s, many expected that the potential interactive nature of the Internet could revolutionize campaigning, extending the reach of nontraditional candidates and encouraging the public to become more involved in campaigns and thus elections. That mostly has been unrealized because the fact remains that technology in and unto itself cannot change human political attitudes. As things transpired, the interactivity of the Internet has proven useful for candidates as an organizing tool, but only marginally has facilitated recruitment, and really has had no impact at all on activating the citizenry.

This is because campaigns, for most individuals, are something to which they feel they have to pay only spotty attention. The Internet becomes a usable tool here only if there is a prior need to be met, such as a desire for information. Just because it may be easier to provide something doesn’t mean it will be accessed. For example, few nonvoters become voters, or intended voters get swayed to a particular candidate, because of the presence of campaign websites. This is because these people inherently have little interest in politics and when they seek information, they usually get it in the most effortless ways because they value the information so lowly, such as by asking somebody, seeing TV ads, and the like, rather than taking effort in finding and pounding into a keyboard a URL.

The newest phenomenon in campaign websites, incorporation of social networking, represents a third generation (first, stale billboards; second, refreshment through frequent updates of text, audio, video, and blogging) of site content and use and probably has the most potential to differentiate the sites from traditional campaigning activities – if the candidates really work at it. This is because the nature of those tools is the interactivity that can lend to personalization. That is, if a candidate actually writes back to those individuals signing up on the site, and often, it creates an effective form of personal contact that can activate those individuals to spread the candidate’s gospel to those largely-inattentive people mentioned above.

In Louisiana, this particularly can be important because the nature of the state’s politics is more personalistic and less party- or ideology-driven. But note that this requires the candidates to actually do this, to make a commitment to frequent communications with those individuals. Typically, that’s a tall order given the demands of campaigning that increases exponentially as the office becomes more important. By far, the surest way to win votes in this state is not to wait for voters to come into contact with you by pulling up your site, but by initiating contact with them through traditional means of advertising and electioneering.

So the impact of the Web then is it has become a required element to a campaign, a necessary condition of sorts to ensure potential voters always have access to information of various kinds. (Indeed, the prevailing conception now for higher offices is that you are not a serious candidate without a professional-appearing site). But as far as being a sufficient condition to win a campaign, it’s safe to say that no website veer has won or lost a campaign, and that will remain true form quite a long time.

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