“Candidates connect with voters online”

Article courtesy of the Altoona Mirror, with a BU student mention.

Patty DeForrest of Huntingdon compares Barack Obama’s campaign Web site to the human cardiovascular system.

”Even if you’re just a tiny capillary, this just makes you feel like you’re in touch with the whole heart of the campaign,” she said, clicking through some of the site’s features.

DeForrest never participated in politics before this presidential election and said, without the Internet, she probably wouldn’t have this year.

The ease of getting online to donate money, organize local phone banks and canvasses and view videos and photos of a candidate is greater than ever before and holds a critical importance for candidates vying for the highest political seat.

A survey in January by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found almost a quarter of Americans say they ”regularly learn something about the campaign from the Internet,” almost double the percentage in 2004, at 13 percent.

More than one-third of respondents ages 18 to 29 said they learn about the campaign from the Internet, the highest percentage for a news source. In 2004, 20 percent of young people said the same.

Obama’s and John McCain’s campaigns maintain an Internet presence through their own Web sites, as well as pages on numerous social networking and other sharing Web sites.

Obama appears on more than a dozen Web sites, targeting various demographics and services. McCain appears on about half as many.

S. Shyam Sundar, a communications professor at Penn State University, called the Internet the ”lifeline” of today’s election campaigns and said a presence is ”absolutely necessary” to win an election.

”It’s as important to a campaign’s survival as a TV campaign used to be 10 to 15 years ago,” he said. ”Most candidates raise a lot of money so they can afford TV ads; to be able to raise that kind of money tells you something about the importance of TV ads. Now the Internet and other online means of getting the word out is comparable to the reach of TV.”

The Internet also allows a longer reach, providing a cheaper, easier way to broadcast a candidate’s message, and allowing him to taylor it to the voter.

McCain’s site offers different home pages for supporters, undecided and unregistered voters.

”You can do all those different kinds of things with tailoring videos, which you can’t do with TV,” Sundar said.

While Sundar said young people who are technology savvy might warm up to new media methods faster, all ages plug in today.

DeForrest said she runs into many area seniors who use Blackberries and computers. She helps get the information to those who don’t.

”We take it from the Internet and out into the community,” she said. Shay Sheeran, a Bloomsburg University student from Allentown and Tyreese King of Bloomsburg feels young voters this year will respond to the candidates’ use of the Internet.

”It’s 2008 – save trees,” King said.

Sheeran said the Internet campaigns are a good thing.

”What kid between 18 and 25 is not on the Internet a half-hour a day?” she asked. ”And businessmen on their Blackberries.”

Kimberly Nissley of Dillsburg, York County, and a student at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, said the Internet’s reach should extend further, allowing voters to cast ballots online.

”That would actually be more beneficial,” she said, asking, ”How many 21-year-old guys think ahead” to secure absentee ballots while attending college away from their hometowns?

Nissley agreed young people have responded to the candidates’ online presence, especially on social networking sites.

”Back in November, I was on Facebook and it was 1 million strong for Obama,” she said. ”They’re really getting on Facebook and YouTube.”

A.C. Stickel, Blair County’s Republican Committee chairman, said he doesn’t have time for MySpace or some of the professional networking sites, but he signed up for the McCain campaign’s e-mails, which anyone can receive.

”I get an e-mail almost daily from the McCain campaign,” he said. ”It’s good to be aware of what’s going on.”

DeForrest connects with other Obama supporters through the candidate’s Web site and through MySpace, a popular social networking site. She keeps up with about 75 MySpace ”friends” who also are involved in Obama’s campaign, from Pennsylvania and other states, including Florida, Georgia and Virginia.

”It’s another way we’ve kept abreast of events,” she said. ”Here, you can accomplish a lot just on your lunch break.”

More than 200 people in and around Huntingdon have signed up to volunteer for the campaign and do much organizing through the ”MyBO” portion of the campaign Web site, its own social network of supporters. The group can e-mail each other, post events and organize at the local level.

Reaching local people as part of a grassroots campaign always was Obama’s goal, said area Pennsylvania spokeswoman Andrea Mead, in which local supporters involve others and organize themselves in their communities.

”It has been one of the tools that enabled the campaign to grow at a grassroots level as quickly as it has and as largely as it has,” she said of the Internet. ”The reason that it’s so valuable to the campaign is it allows supporters to do their own outreach.”

McCain’s campaign also gathers supporters online, creating the social network ”McCain Space,” where the campaign also focuses on grassroots outreach, as a way to supplement on-the-ground activities, Pennsylvania spokesman Paul Lindsay said.

”If John McCain is in central Pennsylvania and at a rally and you can’t make it there, we can put it up on pennsylvania.johnmccain.com,” he said. ”We try to make it as interactive as possible.”

The campaign also created the ”McCain Nation” site to organize house parties to watch McCain’s nomination acceptance speech Sept. 4. More than 250 parties took place in Pennsylvania that night. Supporters also can create events or search for those already happening in their zip code.

The campaigns also offer online donations and both boast big activity.

Mead said Obama has attracted 2 million Internet donors. Lindsay said McCain’s site saw ”record fundraising” after the announcement of running mate Gov. Sarah Palin.

Online fundraising is another big advantage to an online presence, Sundar said, calling McCain’s $2 million from online donations after winning the 2000 New Hampshire primary the first celebration of the method.

”It is a good way to tap into some of the minor donors, people who are contributing small amounts of money because it’s so convenient,” he said. ”It’s definitely not small change. It has gone beyond small change a long time ago.”

A possible downside to the online campaign is the way the Internet can ”fake sincerity,” Sundar said.

”The fact that getting this text message from Barack Obama or he’s on your social network, in a way is wooing supporters and indecisive voters through the use of technology,” he said. ”But at the same time, you have to keep in mind this is, in some ways, not a direct one-on-one interaction you’re having with the candidate.”

DeForrest doesn’t see that as an issue, saying the site is under Obama’s control and that of his staff, as well as the supporters who use the site.

”I think the Internet is an extension of wanting to get involved in the campaign,” she said. ”You never feel like you’re alone in the work that needs to be done.”

Stickel said he believes the Internet is ”extremely beneficial” to campaigns, though reads cautiously through the information he receives.

”Anybody can say anything on the Internet and they do,” he said. ”It’s a tool, and a valuable tool, but it’s only a tool.”

Mirror Staff Writer Jessica VanderKolk is at 946-7465.