The leading Iowa candidates running for statewide office have campaign websites, but an Iowa State University political science professor says all could do a better job in making their websites more “interactive.”
Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign pulled in many of its contributions via its website and the site helped vault the relative unknown Vermont governor into temporary front-runner status. Sarah Leonard, Dean’s Iowa communications director back in 2004, says the campaign used the website to engage in a conversation with voters.
“Governor Dean’s presence on-line really took off nationally and we tried to redouble our efforts during the Iowa Caucuses by developing an Iowa-specific website and an Iowa-specific blog,” Leonard says. The Dean campaign tested its commercials on-line and gauged interest in various issues based upon the conversation on the website.
But the campaign websites created for the campaigns of the three leading Democrats running for governor as well as the presumptive Republican nominee don’t give voters an opportunity to “talk” back to the campaign.
Dianne Bystrom, director of Iowa State University’s Center for Women and Politics, says research papers now detail how Dean and John McCain used the Internet in an essential phase of the campaign to raise money and sign up supporters. “Certainly, for those of us who study political communication, this is the new thing to study and not only with the fundraising and the community building, but also getting out the vote,” Bystrom says. “I think (the web) has a huge potential that really isn’t being used to its full advantage by candidates, but I think it will eventually.”
Steve Mays, vice president of Web Solutions for Learfield — the owner of Radio Iowa, describes the 2006 Iowa candidate websites as safe and boring. “You know, they’re doing pretty much what we’ve been doing with websites since somebody put up the first corporate website. It has all of the right stuff but it’s what I sort of thing of as, for lack of a better term, Web 1.0,” Mays says. “They’re preaching to the choir.”
According to Mays, the campaigns could have engaged the on-line public in more “imaginative and creative” ways. A few of the campaign websites list the candidate’s campaign schedule. Some post news stories, but most of the websites haven’t been updated every day. Jim Nussle’s website unveiled a new “blog” last week written by Nussle’s runningmate, Bob Vander Plaats.
But Mays, Learfield’s online project manager, says what he’s seen on the Iowa campaign websites aren’t really “blogs.” “It’s not very close to anything that anybody who reads very many blogs –or certainly anybody who writes a blog– would consider a legitimate blog,” Mays says. “The whole feel, the tone of this, the voice is very much like if you went to their campaign office and picked up a brochure.”
But that’s sort of what the campaigns want from their websites, according Leonard, who worked on Dean’s 2004 campaign. “It really cuts out the media and the gatekeepers and the candidates are really able to have a conversation directly with voters,” Leonard says. But some of the folks in the Iowa “blogosphere” say there’s not much “conversation” going on at those campaign websites.
One blogger, known as Iowa Ennui, says her “one thought about all of the on-line content is the volume and whether the new stuff is saying anything new and interesting…I just wonder if the campaigns know their on-line audiences all that well.” John Deeth, another Iowa blogger, notes the “buzz” among bloggers about the campaign websites which don’t get updated regularly.
Bystrom, the I-S-U professor, says the data shows that while more people are getting political information on-line, voters tell researchers their number one source for campaign info is the broadcast commercials.