Digital Mudslinging

As the 2006 elections near, smear tactics are going high-tech in a bid to sway Net-surfing voters

Negative campaigning is nothing new during election season. But it has taken on a whole new digital dimension this year. In heated races around the country, candidates are finding new ways to bash opponents through social networks such as MySpace (owned by News Corp. (NWS)) and with new tools such as the online video site YouTube, which wasn't even around in the 2004 election.

And the more the sites grow in popularity, the more efficiently and cheaply a candidate can get a message across. "The nature of the Internet allows for some amount of anonymity, your message spreads around a lot quicker than a debate speech or a TV ad, and there are no regulations by the [Federal Election Commission]," says Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet.

Witness the YouTube effect on the Senate race in Virginia between George Allen, the Republican incumbent, and Democratic challenger Jim Webb. Allen held a comfortable lead over Webb until one of Webb's camera-toting aides captured footage of Allen making a racial slur during a campaign stop in Breaks, Va. The incident was quickly posted on YouTube, where it temporarily held the site's No. 1 ranking and swiftly gained national notoriety. Allen has since taken a steep drop in popularity among voters. A seat Republicans previously counted as a sure thing has now become the focus of a hotly contested race.

Microsites and Belly Laughs

Online aspersions can be particularly effective when they're draped in humor. A lot of Net surfers are more likely to forward a video clip or flock to a site if there's a guffaw in the payoff. "Negative campaigns work and that's why people always do them," says Rebecca Donatelli, chairwoman of Campaign Solutions, a consulting firm that coordinates online campaigns for Republican candidates. "But if you're going to say something negative, you should try to do it with a sense of humor."

Campaign Solutions is working on behalf of Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, creating a series of microsites aimed at needling Santorum's opponent, Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat. "The point was to poke fun at Bob Casey and to raise some ire," she says. Campaign Solution's Detective Site and Western Site, both of which can be accessed from, use playfully themed graphics to drive home what Santorum believes to be Casey's Achilles' heel: a history of conspicuous absence from public dialogue.

Virginia Davis, spokeswoman for the Santorum campaign, says the microsites have worked particularly well with a younger demographic. Along with profiles on MySpace, Facebook, and videos on YouTube, she says interactive components of Santorum's 2006 campaign targeted constituents age 18 to 35 by "appealing to people who think politics are boring." Not to be left out of the online political scene, Casey has a sleekly designed Web site with a focus on different ways to take action, such as recruiting friends and writing to news editors.

From a Distance

In California, polls show that State Treasurer Phil Angelides lags well behind Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in voter support—but that's not stopping Angelides from tapping a variety of experimental online resources. The challenger set up, a site where users play an animated game of building their own personalized Schwarzenegger action figure. The game is designed to focus on what Angelides considers a poor Schwarzenegger record on issues such as education. "Too Cool for School" Arnold, for example, promises to "raise tuition and fees" and "cut financial aid by two billion dollars."

The Angelides campaign initially linked to the game from its main page, but it recently removed the link and there's no indication on the microsite that the challenger and his team are the creators. The anonymity of the Web, as permitted by the Federal Election Commission's lax policies regarding the Internet, allows candidates like Angelides to portray their opponent in a negative light without coming off as mudslingers themselves.

Negative campaigns can backfire through any medium—but they do so all the more quickly and virally on the Web. Just ask Bob Corker, who's challenging Harold Ford for the Tennessee U.S. Senate seat. Corker pulled a TV ad attacking Ford amid criticism that it played on racial stereotypes. Corker tried to distance himself from the ad, which features a white woman bragging that she met Ford "at a Playboy party." But the ad has lived on with a vengeance on YouTube (recently purchased by Google (GOOG)).

Let Them Sling Mud

Constituent-generated media, as exemplified by political blogs of recent years, has proved that smear campaigning isn't limited to the politicians themselves. Now, online social networks put the mud in the hands of voters.

That may come as especially good news for Democrats. New data from Nielsen//NetRatings show that Republican candidates have a larger constituency on the Internet—36.6% of users 18 and older, compared with 30.8% of users who support Democrats. But the most popular social-networking sites strongly tend toward Democrat and liberal-leaning users. On MySpace, 31.5% of members identify themselves as Democrats, whereas 23.9% say they're Republican. On Facebook, 49.9% of members are Democrats, while just over a quarter, 26%, are Republican.

Embracing social networks may be especially effective for Democrats in parts of the country where young voters are regarded as a key swing demographic, such as in Iowa's third congressional district. There, Democratic incumbent Leonard Boswell and Republican challenger Jeff Lamberti both have Facebook profiles. But among the site's users, Boswell has 76% of the support, compared with 24% for Lamberti.

The Nedheads

In the Connecticut U.S. Senate race between Democrat Ned Lamont and incumbent Joseph Lieberman, Lamont supporters calling themselves "Nedheads" created a group on YouTube that has attracted more than 2,000 members and created nearly 500 videos in support of their favored candidate, which in many cases attack Lieberman's policies. One Nedhead post is a music video of "The Find Joe Song," which calls Senator Lieberman a "bottom feeder" who has "bought the race."

A potential pitfall of letting supporters get involved is losing control of the candidate's image or message, be it positive or negative (see, 5/31/06, "A Vote for MySpace"). That wasn't a concern for Lamont's campaign, says Tim Tagaris, the campaign's Internet communications director. "The Nedheads came about organically, and we support meaningful opportunities for people to give their feedback like that," he says.

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