The polls aren't the only place John McCain is trailing Barack Obama. Republicans also lag Democrats when it comes to using social media, such as blogs and social networks.
David All, 29, is at the forefront of the Republican effort to close the gap. "There needs to be a shift in culture," says All, a Washington consultant who's determined to reshape his party's online strategy. "I don't think it's too late."
But the clock is ticking. While the Republicans have focused on more traditional avenues, such as TV ads, to reach voters, the Democrats have aggressively used social networks and other audience-participation sites to build support among younger voters and small donors. Senator Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate, has grabbed almost 1.5 million "friends" on leading social networks Facebook and MySpace (NWS), and 850,000 on his own social network MyBarackObama.com (BusinessWeek.com, 6/24/08). Senator McCain (R-Ariz.), who has locked up the Republican nomination, has 203,348 supporters on the two dominant social networks, according to TechPresident, a nonpartisan site that tracks political Web strategies. "The Republicans have had some success online, but not to the degree the Democrats have and certainly not to the degree the Obama campaign has," says Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of TechPresident.
Record Youth Voter Turnout
Just a few months ago, it wasn't clear how much online success mattered. Do Facebook friends really show up at the polls, much less open their checkbooks? Doubts were laid to rest by record youth voter turnout during the Democratic primaries and Obama's June 19 decision to forgo public funds. Obama couldn't have made the call without a network of 1.5 million donors, many of whom contribute online, and the $200 million his campaign has raised over the Web. "There is now a recognition with the leaders of the party that, though they might not totally understand online, the Internet matters, and it is an area that we need to participate in," says Austin Walne, the former e-campaign co-director for former Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who withdrew from the race earlier this year.
McCain's campaign is scrambling to make up for lost time. In February, the campaign launched McCainSpace, an online community modeled loosely on MySpace, where users can sign up family and friends, register to vote, and support causes central to McCain's agenda. Users can also create their own McCainSpace profiles. Earlier this month, McCain hired Michael Goldfarb, a blogger for conservative opinion publication The Weekly Standard, as the campaign's deputy communications director. Goldfarb now regularly blogs for McCain's site.
The Republican Party is taking other steps to further its online agenda. On June 24, All's consultancy, the David All Group, helped launch Whereisthered.com along with the College Republican National Committee. The communal blog follows three college Republicans as they travel cross-country through "Red" congressional districts. The aim is to show young voters the widespread appeal of the party across America. Last year, All introduced a donor site, Slatecard, in part as an answer to the Democratic ActBlue, a four-year-old online political action committee that lets users contribute to any Democratic candidate and that has raised $53 million. Slatecard won't release membership numbers or say how much it has raised but All says the goal for this year is $1 million.
On the Attack
Republicans are also using social media tools to go on the offensive. On June 6, the RNC launched a site, MeetBarackObama.com, that highlights criticisms of McCain's rival, and features community tools such as interactive polls concerning Obama's greatest weaknesses.
The site also has links to other relatively new interactive RNC sites such as CanWeAsk.com, which encourages users to submit pointed questions to Obama, such as "Why did he tell donors in San Francisco that the economy has driven small town voters to 'cling' to guns and religion?"
Republican Party officials insist they're not late to social Web tools. The official party site, GOP.com, has had an attached social network for six years, says Cyrus Krohn, the RNC's e-campaign director. The site was recently redesigned to highlight social Web functions. "We've been doing a lot of work over the past year understanding how users are interacting with our tools and moving users from online to offline," says Krohn.
Despite such efforts, many in the Republican Party say the RNC, and McCain's campaign in particular, must do more. There is still a widespread perception that McCain and the Republicans don't get the Web, say several young party members interviewed at the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), a conference concerning the Internet's role in politics, held in New York on June 23-24. McCain's lack of showing on the major social networks and other sites where young voters hang out makes him look out of touch with that demographic, they say, particularly when compared with Obama. That perception keeps McCain from receiving wide support from tech-savvy individuals who could build tools to help his campaign, not to mention cough up much needed cash.
The view of McCain as ignorant of new Web tools was reinforced during a PDF panel where McCain's personal computer use was discussed. Tracy Russo, the former deputy director of online communication for John Edwards' campaign, criticized McCain for saying in a widely publicized interview with politics blog Politico that he doesn't use a Mac or PC. "I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get," McCain said, referring to his lack of computing knowledge. McCain's deputy e-campaign director, Mark SooHoo, responded that McCain was "aware that there is an Internet," and understands its impact, even though he doesn't use such new Web tools.
Understanding isn't enough, however. McCain's team has to build better tools to help supporters spread the word about him. All says he is looking for the Republican Party to get more involved with text messaging, Wikipedia, and other activities that could increase the e-mail list for McCain. "It is time for the Republicans to catch up online," says All.