Blog Campaigning: Introduction


“We’re entering a different era of political communication, and no one is an expert at it yet. The velocity of change is extraordinary. Everyone is experimenting online, because we don’t know yet what will work” (Rosenberg in Mussenden 2007)

The landscape of political communication is changing rapidly. “Technology has changed the way people interact with one another” (Simmons 2005, p. 1) and “the creation of an electronic media has revolutionized the way information is gathered and transmitted” (Simmons 2005, p. 1). Since 2004, the world has experienced an enormous growth in online political activity. The emergence of social media and social networking sites has given room for a new political era. People can now engage in political activities via a computer as long as they have access to the Internet. This new form of political engagement has created a new and attractive market of voters for politicians to target. In an effort to optimize their reach to this new segment of voters, a growing number of politicians have started embracing some of the technologies that have emerged from the social media scene, including them in their overall political strategy. One of the latest and fastest growing technological developments to emerge from the social media scene that has been adapted by political parties and candidates in their overall communication strategy is the weblog – more often referred to as the blog. In the 2004 U.S. presidential election blogs were for the first time added by political candidates to their bag of campaign tricks (Lawson-Border & Kirk 2005, p. 1, Trammell 2005, p. 2). Few claimed then that the tool had a significant impact on the election. Three years later, facing the 2008 U.S. presidential election, “political bloggers say that their trade is becoming more influential than standard election techniques” (The University Daily Kansan News 14 February 2007). Even experts claim blogs play a larger part in the political campaigning process than traditional ways of informing the public. According to new-media expert Sean Mussenden (2007) of Media General News Service, this election’s (the 2008 U.S. presidential election) candidates are helping redefine online politics:

“Candidates are speaking directly to voters through text and video blogs displayed on their increasingly sophisticated Web pages. They also are lobbying influential political bloggers for endorsements -- and in some cases putting them on the payroll” (Mussenden 2007).

But just how effective has this new online communication instrument become as a campaign tool? Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, claimed recently that: “The race to the White House in 2008 will be all about how candidates talk to people online” (in Havenstein 2007). Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and was the most profiled of the online-oriented campaign managers during the campaign, told Agence France-Presse that:

“The Web will be playing a bigger role than ever in the 2008 campaign, so much so that for the first time, it will actually change the outcome of the election” (in Zablit 2007).

Trippi’s statement might be sensational, even simplistic. But it raises an interesting question: What impact does an online communication tool like a blog have on the democratic election process? In an effort to reach a better understanding of this issue, this paper will analyse the following research questions:

• How do political parties and candidates use blogs? • Does electioneering via blogs influence political campaigns? • How do we measure the impact blogs have on the outcome of an election?

To answer these questions the paper will examine how political parties and candidates have used blogs as a campaigning instrument in elections to date, locate situations where blogs might have helped a campaign produce an upset election outcome, and debate how we can measure a blog’s ability to affect voting decisions.

Blog Campaiging: 4.1 Measuring effects: Does web-campaigning win votes?

4.1 Measuring effects: Does web-campaigning win votes?

Studies attempting to measure the effects of web based campaigning are limited and the evidence that has emerged is mixed (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 5).

Conducting one of the earliest analyses of the effects of web-campaigning D’Alessio found that websites had a strong effect on votes during the 1996 U.S. congressional election (Gibson & McAllister 2005, pp. 5-6). D’Alessio found that “a website provided a candidate with an additional 9,300 votes, after controlling for party affiliation and incumbency” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 5). However, sceptical of his own findings D’Alessio (1997, p. 498) argued that: “it seems very unlikely that each candidate’s web site inspired 9,300 (on the average) additional people to vote for that candidate”. He argues that it is more likely that (1) “Use of a web site may be an indication of the candidate's use of any of a wide variety of alternative methods of campaigning. That is, posting a Web site is one element of an entire suite of strategies employed by the candidate, the sum of whose payoffs is subsumed under the main effect for having a Web site in this analysis”, (2) “The Web site might not have induced people to change their votes (or convert) but instead may have inspired a number of people to vote who otherwise would not have”, and (3) “rather than the establishment of a Web site (or associated activities) leading to extra votes, instead candidates may establish Web sites in part as a result of opinion poll position” (D’Alessio 1997, p. 498).

The impact of web-campaigning has also been explained by a general growth in the audience seeking news and information online (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 6). Several reports suggest that the number of people seeking news on the Internet, particularly when it comes to information about political campaigns, has grown significantly in the last few years (Williams et al. 2005, p. 177). A multivariate analysis performed by Farnsworth and Owen found that online news and information had a significant effect on people’s voter decisions in the 2000 U.S. presidential election (in Gibson & McAlister 2005, p. 7). Bimber and David came to the opposite view when they applied a more sophisticated multivariate analysis to the 2000 U.S. presidential election. The authors examined the impact of candidate websites on individuals’ levels of knowledge, positive or negative feelings and voting behaviour and found that “most people were not affected by what they viewed online, particularly in terms of being mobilised to vote” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, pp. 7-8). Analysing the 2001 and 2004 Australian federal election, Gibson and McAllister (2005, p. 16) found support for a hypothesis suggesting that the use of websites has a strong effect on people’s voting decision.

“Our results reveal support for the proposition that a web campaign is an integral part of securing victory in an election” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 16).

Gibson and McAllister found that:

“Candidates who maintained a web page increased their first preference vote by just over 4 percent, net of individual and party resources, party membership and other aspects of campaigning” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 13).

The study concluded that the importance of having a website was only superseded by incumbency and party membership. However, Gibson and McAllister (2005, p. 17) argue that as the use of the web and email in campaigns becomes more mainstream one might see this effect become less profound.

It is clear that studies focusing on the effects of the web on the political process are in the same inconclusive state as Bartels (1993) and Berelson (in Diamond & Bates 1984) find the research in the “media effects” area to be. Some studies have found that electioneering via the Internet has “minimal effects” on people’s voting behaviour; other have found it to have “strong effects”. Some are sceptical of their own findings while some see the effects become less profound as the Internet becomes a more mainstream electioneering tool. Perhaps it is D’Alessio’s (1997) alternative explanations that so far give us the most comprehensive idea of the impact the Internet has on the political process. Even so, the inconclusive state of research on the subject clearly demonstrates an urgent need for more research to be carried out in the near future. Today the web plays a crucial part in any political campaign. We therefore need to ask which aspects about blogs can impact voter decisions, and whether previous attempts of identifying the relationship between web-campaigning and voter decisions also can be used to test the impact of blogs on contemporary elections. Furthermore, we need to ask which aspects of blogs, not before considered, can have an impact on political campaigns and help change the outcome of an election.