A friend called from Washington today to discuss the Cagle and Reed battle. He works for a 527 and wanted my thoughts on the candidates. In the course of the conversation he reminded me of something that I’ve been meaning to blog about. He is not the first to say it. The gist of what he said is this — Casey Cagle’s website looks like the website of a winner and Ralph Reed’s website looks like the website of a candidate.
“Candidate and elected official blogs are total crap.”
This is not to say anything about the merits of either candidate and please don’t go off on a Ralph v. Casey thread in the comments. This is merely a statement on the merits of their websites. I have to give large applause to Jay Williams and the Stoneridge Group for doing a tremendous job with Casey’s website. It is polished and professional. Ralph Reed’s site looks like an afterthought. Casey’s team has gone so far as to plan for the incorporation of podcasts on his site.
Now, having said all of that, here are some thoughts on the use of websites for candidates.
Local candidates do not really need websites. They should be treated as a luxury rather than a need. Everyone wants to latch on to the latest and greatest, which websites are for campaigns. But, websites are a novelty still and local races should save their money and resources. Local campaigns need free media to survive and free media for a local campaign is best earned by making direct connections to the local reporters, instead of hiding behind a webiste. Besides, it is rare to find local talent capable of putting together a decent looking website and keep it up to date. It’d be better to not make a first impression on the web if your site looks like crap.
In large metro areas websites should be considered. Residents in metro areas are more likely to be web savvy and the media in metro areas would most likely prefer access to your information online with personal followups.
In Congressional races and statewide races, websites are a necessity. But, probably not for what you think. A website is more likely to be a point of contact for a campaign researcher for a 527 and for the media than for the average joe looking to find out about the candidate — in short, a website is for the political junkie and political employee.
Take my friend this morning. His organization was considering going ahead and getting in with Ralph Reed. But, they browsed Ralph’s site and Casey’s site and came to the conclusion that Ralph is not going to run away with the race and they won’t get in this early. They had been under the impression that Cagle was token opposition until they saw his website. Impressions like those matter.
Now, this may come as as a shock, considering I’m a blogger, but I think candidate and elected official blogs are total crap. Actually, total crap is more appealing. Think about it. No candidate or elected official is going to deviate from the rest of his story or say anything controversial. You are not going to get anything new. The best you’ll get is “I had a delightful time kissing
obnoxious beautiful babies in Cobb County today. Tomorrow I dread can’t wait to be in Waycross.” Candor is a slim commodity on candidate websites.
A candidate blog can be used to post schedules for where candidates will be and to thank volunteers. Likewise, a candidate can go the Dean route, though I don’t recommend it, and have an open forum for supporters.
Where a blog can come in handy is an opposition blog, as the Thune race in South Dakota demonstrated remarkably well. Having volunteers or paid staff start up blogs to bash the opponent work well. Besides being a lawyer, I’m a political commentator in the mainstream media. I cannot tell you what an asset it is for the mainstream media to have opposition blogs. I may have slim pickings for a story on a candidate, but if the opposition is dredging up dirt, I may not be able to report it as fact, but I can certainly mention that some blogger is reporting this dirt on X and build a story from it. See e.g., Newsweek using the Enquirer running with the Lewinsky story to get its own story running.
Blogs can also be utilized by campaigns or campaign supporters to get “the true story out.” That was also effective in South Dakota in the Thune race. Thune supporters thought, accurately, that the media was biased against their guy and, as a result, fired up Blogger, Movable Type, and WordPress to combat blatant media bias. They started an alternative media for people to get news and proved more credible than many mainstream news outlets. I’ve actually been surprised Ralph Reed hasn’t employed a similar strategy to combat the casino news in the AJC.
This all brings me to my last point. Kudos to Casey Cagle and the Stoneridge Group for anticipating Podcasts. While podcasts are generally amateurish and boring, they are an open way for candidates to get their message out to supporters so supporters can hear their voice. They are great for slamming opponents, while flying under the radar, and for getting out the message a candidate might not otherwise be able to get out.
The future of blogging is in covering politics. The future of podcasting is in politics.
Final point: statewide campaigns need comprehensive sites. If you make it easier for the media to get the information they want, they won’t be easier on you, but they’ll recognize your competence and will have no excuse to ignore you. A crap website will, to both the media and those organizations that might give you money, turn off favorable attention. Neither group wants to waste its time dealing with the candidate or the candidate’s staff that will do nothing but sing the candidate’s praises. They want details on the candidate and where he stands on the issues. A good looking, easy to use and navigate website serves that purpose.
Good looking, easy to navigate websites also will help a candidate rope in volunteers, voters, and contributions from web savvy voters. But, the website viewers need easy directions from the interface and, in addition to being easy to navigate, the website should not be boring in either its appearance or interface. Web savvy voters have come to expect much and won’t hold candidates and elected officials to lesser standards than what they’ve come to expect.