Social networking sites are allowing candidates to reach out to the largely untapped market of college-age voters. A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch details the online presences of Midwest politicians and considers the future of online campaigning.
On Facebook.com, Sen. Jim Talent reveals that his favorite actress is Reese Witherspoon and that the name of his Great Dane is Dudley. In Ohio, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has stocked his campaign website with video clips of speeches and TV commercials. MySpace.com and other websites display cyberspace bumper stickers that can be copied to promote Strickland's campaign for governor.
Such efforts work for Missouri State fresman Melissa Erickson: "You learn more about what (Talent) likes and see what other people think. It helps reach out to a lot of college students in a way that they can connect to."
Social networking sites seem just about ready-made for political races, experts say.
"It's an incredible tool for online organizing and particularly for cultivating your base of supporters, of any ages, really," said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director for the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
Social networking profiles "really become the easiest way for people to get information about you, particularly as it gets closer to the election," she said.
When you collect millions of users in one place - MySpace.com reportedly had 56 million people last month - it's like putting out honey for politicians.
It's hard for politicians to ignore that sizable population, said Jeff Berman, a senior vice president for MySpace.com. "We've seen more and more politicians coming online and establishing a presence," Berman said. "And that's because that's where the people are - your voters, your donors. Any time there's a new and powerful way to communicate with potential voters, any politician that ignores that does so at their own peril."
Of course the Internet is not great news for all politicians. When they screw up, the proof is online around the world instantly - and permanently. The video of George Allen calling an opponent's campaign worker "macaca" will be on YouTube.com forever - or at least as YouTube exists.
Video clips of Allen's comments at the campaign stop hit YouTube.com. The original video alone has been seen more than 237,000 times on YouTube, and outside websites that posted the video have accounted for 34,000 more views of the YouTube clip. The video clip eventually made news shows on network and cable TV, as well as popular Comedy Central programs. Allen apologized for weeks after the remarks.
For politicians who enter the uncontrollable waters of social networking, it's crucial to jump in with both feet. That means actively monitoring a MySpace profile and fully participating in the online community.
If a candidate remains committed to social networking websites throughout a campaign, they'll reap the benefits of using that Internet tool, said Jack Cardotti, spokesman for the Missouri Democratic Party.
But you can't create "a MySpace (account) and not monitor it, because people can, do and will get on there and put inappropriate things on there," Cardotti said. "We advise our candidates: You should either jump into this lake or stay out of it altogether, because you can't go in with just one toe in the water."