Candidate Web Sites, Propaganda or News? – A PEJ Study
In 2004, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean gained early momentum in his bid for presidency by using a new political tool, his campaign Web site. Setting new standards along the way, he used the Web to help raise roughly $50 million, to communicate directly with supporters through a blog, create a legion of new political activists called “Deaniacs,” and even organize gatherings called “meet ups.”
Three years later, Howard Dean’s campaign is best remembered for its sudden end, but his legacy may be something else. In 2007, all 19 candidates for president have Web sites, and blogs are the least of it.
Nearly all of the sites now have pages on MySpace, the social networking Web site. Online fundraising has become standard—Barack Obama in the second quarter of 2007 alone raised $10 million on his Web site, a third of his total. Several candidates used their sites to kick off their campaigns, rather than staging an old-fashioned campaign event designed to get press coverage.
It all has raised new questions about the evolving communications of American politics and the role of the Web in particular as a way of sidestepping the scrutiny of traditional journalism.
How are candidates using their Web sites? To what extent are they trying to evade the traditional media? What images and tested keywords are they promoting, and which ones are they avoiding? To find out, the Project for Excellence in Journalism examined in detail the Web sites of the 19 announced presidential candidates, comparing them on a range of features and studying their language.
What we found is that one can learn a good deal about individual candidates from these sites. Users can also interact here with the campaigns and other citizens, and even move in many cases to grassroots activity. The emphasis of candidate sites is also more on issues and biography, with little of the horse race and tactical focus that critics decry is an emphasis of traditional media. Rather than bypassing the mainstream media filter, the candidate sites try to exploit the traditional press by using their material selectively in self-serving ways. What is missing is balance, any effort to get below spin—and the ability to compare one candidate with another.
Among the key findings:
• Candidate Web sites have fully embraced politics as a two-way conversation with voters. Twelve sites also offer the opportunity for visitors to turn that dialogue into grassroots action (organizing their own events, fundraisers, etc). Add dialogue and action together and Democrats have the most interactive sites, led by Barack Obama, followed by Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Bill Richardson.
• Perhaps the most fundamental grassroots activity of all, registering people to vote, is lacking here. Only four candidates—Hillary Clinton, John Cox, John McCain and Barack Obama—offer tools or information about how to register.
• Blogs, a novelty in 2004, are now mainstream. Fifteen of the 19 sites feature their own official weblogs, and seven offer users the chance to start their own. Mitt Romney has his five sons author his campaign blog. Sam Brownback lets users contribute to his. John Edwards lets them write diaries.
• Savvy visitors may even be able to determine leading candidates from the so-called lesser ones. The top candidates—those with the most money and poll popularity—have the most technically sophisticated sites, update more often, use more video and include more news articles. They also focus on fewer issues. Edwards features the fewest issues (six). Dennis Kucinich has the most (91), and is the only candidate to talk about hemp and animal rights.
• When it comes to language, the biographies of the GOP candidates differ from those of the Democrats. The GOP bios emphasize “leadership,” “taxes,” and “values;” Democrats stress “children,” “family” and “protect.” And Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to name the party to which they belong.
• Some words are missing altogether in the biographies, including “God,” “moral,” and “progressive.” No Democrat uses the word “liberal”, and even Republican front runners shy away from using “conservative.” The only ones who do are candidate notably trailing the polls. For her part, Hillary Clinton almost entirely avoids reference to her husband at all.
These are some of the findings of PEJ’s study of 19 candidate Web sites examined in May and June 2007. The study explored four elements of each Web site.
First, how did each site try to engage users and to what extent did it exploit the potential of digital technology to create a dialogue with users, moving beyond the traditional one-way communication offered by TV or radio commercials, billboards, bumper stickers and direct mail?
Second, to what extent are sites trying to bypass the filter of traditional media, becoming their own information outlets, controlled by the campaigns, and appealing to voters directly?
What are the different delivery options the sites use to reach voters, beyond traditional Web sites?
Finally, in an age of product testing, what are the words each candidate uses to describe him- or herself—and what words does each avoid?
1. Republican Fred Thompson announced his possible intention to announce his bid for president on May 30, 2007, after this study began. Therefore his site is not included in the analysis.
2. Results reflect the sites as of June 12, 2007.
3. These four elements were derived from a similar study that analyzed six components of online news Web sites. Read the results of Digital Journalism: A Topography of News Websites and compare news Web sites with our Flash-based interactive component.