Blog Campaigning: 4.3 The uses of blogs in political campaigns

4.3 The uses of blogs in political campaigns

“One of the key questions that should concern any study of the potential affect of blogs on politics and policy development are how politicians themselves are utilizing the new communications technologies” (Sroka 2007, p. 22).

Academic literature examining uses of blogs in political campaigns has mainly focused on the 2004 U.S. presidential election as this was the first campaign ever to see a political candidate use a blog as an integral part of a campaign (Rice 2004, p. 1, Williams et al. 2005, p. 178).

The candidate leading the technological revolution was Howard Dean (Trammell 2005, p. 2). Dean and his campaign team were especially open to new strategies. In planning the campaign, the team looked at previous Internet successes to create a new model of online communication that was genuine in its ability to reach out to supporters (Rice 2004, p. 6). Dean therefore created an official campaign blog, Blog for America, developed a massive email list of supporters and embraced online forums and tools as means to organize events and rallies (Rice 2004, pp. 5-6). The idea behind his strategy was to allow for volunteers to take a key role in the development and processes of the campaign (Rice 2004, pp. 5-6). Nonetheless, Dean never achieved his final goal of becoming the 44th president to govern the United States. Whether his campaign was successful or not has therefore been the topic of numerous debates. Yet, some scholars argue that Dean’s online campaign strategies in many ways made him a successful candidate. Rice (2004, p. 6), for instance, argues that Dean’s success can be measured by his ability to use the web to raise more funds than any other Democratic candidate, recruit more than 500 000 supporters and propel him to frontrunner status. Several scholars also argue that Dean’s online presence made a significant impact on the political agenda (see Rice 2004, Trammell 2005, Williams et al. 2005).

“[…] the media noticed Dean’s Internet success and wrote extensively about his use of technology, creating even a bigger buzz and generating plenty of earned media that none of the other Democratic candidates were receiving” (Rice 2004, p. 6).

In fact, Trammell (2005, pp. 2-3) argues, the buzz became so loud that the other candidates followed suit and integrated a blog to their campaign toolkit. As a result, more than half of the primary candidates ended up operating a campaign blog during the 2004 election (Williams et al. 2005, p. 180).

However, as many would have expected when a technological innovation suddenly becomes a central part of a campaign’s message management machinery without the campaign getting the chance to explore the innovation’s usability, audiences experienced a huge variation in the way candidates expressed themselves through their blogs. Bloom and Kerbel argue that candidates mainly used their blog for three functions during the campaign: “diffusing information to internal audiences; building up a volunteer base; agenda setting of the mainstream media” (in Jackson 2006, p. 196). Blogs were either “written by the candidate himself or herself, ghostwritten for the candidate, or authored and identified by another member of the campaign staff” (Trammell in Conners 2005, p. 5). Only some of the campaigns invited voters to comment on their blog. Most often the blogs were only used for one-way communication purposes, spreading information from the campaign to prospective voters (see Rice 2004). In general this is to say that most blogs did not present any new features that were not already presented on their campaign website.

Not surprisingly many studies argue that the candidate that made the most of his blog was the only candidate that was properly prepared for a campaign that focused on Internet outreach, namely Howard Dean. Williams et al. (2005, p. 180) found that Dean used his blog more actively than any of the other candidates when it came to voter outreach. He included more features on his blog than any other candidate “by letting visitors comment on blog posts and subscribe to the blog through syndication (RSS, XML). He also categorized the blogposts by subject and posted ‘‘trackback’’ data showing the context and links to other (noncampaign-related) discussions of particular blog posts” (Williams et at. 2005, p. 180). Additionally, Dean embraced unofficial campaign blogs by creating a blogroll linking to numerous unofficial supporter blogs (Rice 2004, p. 13). Dean used his blog to transmit a stream of information concerning the campaign, including “information of upcoming events, review of events, campaign updates, volunteer activities, open-thread dialog, fundraising goals and returns, reviews of debates and press coverage, and pictures”, argues Rice (2004, pp. 12-13). Readers were constantly encouraged to post their own comments and promote entries and links to other blogs that referenced the campaign (Rice 2004, pp. 12-13). These findings were also supported by Kerbel and Bloom (2005, p. 1), which by analysing the content of 3,066 unique posts encompassing every entry in the Dean blog from March 15, 2003 through January 27, 2004, found that the campaign used the blog to encourage its audience to discuss media coverage of the campaign and “facilitate discourse about Dean’s positions on issues and public policy in general”. Kerbel and Bloom (2005, p. 11) also found that Dean’s team used the blog’s interactive capabilities to engage bloggers in tactical exercises such as: “writing letters to undecided voters, canvassing, and organizing campaign events”, and that the blog played a significant role in the campaign’s largely successful fundraising effort (Dean raised over 40 million dollars for his campaign) (Kerbel & Bloom 2005, pp. 11-14).

“Giving money became a cathartic experience for bloggers who felt attached to the Dean campaign through their membership in the virtual community that the blog created. […] Campaign officials encouraged this giving by playing up goals and benchmarks” (Kerbel & Bloom 2005, p. 14).

In conclusion, the previous literature argues that through his blog, Dean, more than any other candidate, invited supporters and volunteers to play a key role in the campaign process. Perhaps his efforts are best summed up in a Slate article published November 2003:

“The metaphor of choice for Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign is "open-source politics": a two-way campaign in which the supporters openly collaborate with the campaign to improve it, and in which the contributions of the "group mind" prove smarter than that of any lone individual” (Suellentrop 2003).

Most of the other candidates running for presidency in 2004 chose not to make their blog as active and open as Dean did. Wesley Clark’s blog offered a fairly high degree of interactivity: “thanks to his hiring of a well-known blogger, Cameron Barrett, early in his campaign”, argues Conners (2005, p. 5). Otherwise, Rice (2004) found that the other campaign blogs were used more as conventional news wires and websites than blogs. For example: neither of the selected candidates, Bush and Kerry, used their blog as a major opportunity for fundraising (Williams et al. 2005, p. 181). Bush did not allow his readers to submit comments on his blog (Rice 2004, pp. 21-22), while Kerry experienced huge problems with spam posting and had to close down his comment section for parts of the campaign (Rice 2004, p. 18).

Although more limited in numbers, a few studies have been conducted on politicians’ use of campaign blogs after the 2004 presidential election. A paper by Joan Conners (2005, p. 7) discussing technological developments within the U.S. Senate campaign websites in 2004, found that only 26.3 percent of the candidates included a blog in their campaign toolkit during the senatorial race. Conners found that:

“Some blogs appeared to be little more than campaign calendars of events, or abbreviated press releases, while others summarized campaign events or attempted to motivate voters to take action (donate, register to vote, attend events, etc.). Many provided links to news coverage of the campaign or one’s opponents” (Conners 2005, p. 8).

A study conducted by The Bivings Group in an effort to assess the role of the Internet in the 2006 U.S. senatorial election found that in the beginning of the campaign only 23 percent (of the 77 candidates explored by the report) included a blog in their campaign repertoire (Internet’s Role in Political Campaigns 2006). However, after revisiting the data from the study after the campaign was over, The Bivings Group found that more candidates had added blogs to their campaign toolkit during the campaign.

“In our original study, 23% of the candidates had blogs on their websites. After the shrinking of the candidate pool (many candidates dropped out after losing their primaries) and the addition of a few new blogs, this number has increased to 41%. 31% of incumbents now have blogs and 50% of challengers offer blogs on their sites” (Telling 2006a).

Representing The Bivings Group, Erin Telling stated on the company’s official blog, The Bivings Report, that the report found that most campaigns used their blog to present the same top-down material found in press releases and candidate websites (Telling 2006a).

“A few […] blogs stand out from the political norm: Ned Lamont’s blog is particularly robust, and actually resembles a “real” blog. The quality of Lamont’s blog has been largely credited with his defeat of incumbent Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s primary. Jean Hay Bright’s blog appears to be sincere in content, but it lacks comments, links, and a blogroll. John Spencer’s blog has the opposite problem: it allows comments and offers Web 2.0 features, but the content is nothing more than candidate press releases. Of these new blogs, those of Mark Kennedy, and Joe Lieberman are probably the worst, as they don’t publish comments and lack personal content. The remaining blogs, (Cantwell, Casey, Ensign, McGavick, Menendez, and Stabenow) followed this vein, and while not terrible, are really nothing to speak of. In my opinion, bad and phony blogging looks worse than choosing not to blog. With this in mind, my advice to candidates would be to only pursue a campaign blog if they have the time and good intentions to offer constituents unique and interesting material. A blog full of press releases and opponent attacks is not going to impress anyone” (Telling 2006a).

The uses of blogs in election campaigns have also been the subject of studies outside the U.S. And while it must be pointed out that a cross country comparison might prove difficult because of the variations among the different political systems, it can still be useful to explore how parties and candidates outside the U.S. have embraced the new trend.

The general election in Germany 2005 was the first of its kind to see party organisations and political candidates use blogs to establish contact with voters (Abold & Heltsche 2006, p. 1). Abold and Heltsche (2005, pp. 7-8) found that during the election over 100 blogs were run by politicians and parties at a state or federal level. However, many of these were short lived. The vast majority of the blogs lacked interconnectedness and interactivity (Adamic & Glance in Abold & Heltsche 2006, p. 13). As a consequence they “missed the opportunity to develop a cross-blog dialogue” (Abold & Heltsche 2006, p. 13). A similar study of the British general election in 2005 showed that party blogs were “essentially used as one-way communication channels which added colour to party web sites” (Jackson 2006, p. 292).

On a final note, before moving on to discuss how the candidates’ use of blogs might have impacted voter decisions, it could be useful to briefly delve into a very recent and unique study looking at how candidates themselves perceive the usefulness and effects of the blog as a communication tool. The study, conducted by Sroka (2007), found that:

“[…] offices on Capitol Hill are less optimistic about a congressional blogs’ effectiveness in reaching the media than its potential to communicate with the blogosphere-at-large or even political opponents” (Sroka 2007, p. 25).

Explaining the findings, Sroka (2007, p. 25) argues that this might suggest that “Congressional offices feel they already have other effective means to communicate with the media and thus do not need blogs to do so”. Sroka (2007, p. 25) also suggests that the findings might mean that offices are trying to utilize blogs and have found them useful as a tool to reach out to bloggers or voters in general.

This section has looked at how political candidates and parties have utilized blogs in political campaigns. Judged by the literature discussing the subject it looks as if few parties or candidates have managed to fully embrace the features that make the blog a useful and successful campaigning instrument. The paper will therefore further explore what, if any, impact the previous literature argues that the tool have had on specific campaigns or elections from 2004 to 2007.