Politicians Catch Up to Internet Technology

LOL:) Look who's podcasting! No, it's not your teenager. It's your senator.

Veteran politicians more familiar with turntables and typewriters are enlisting twenty-something computer whiz kids to help them brave the digital world of blogs, podcasts and the Web as they look to connect directly with voters.

The 2004 presidential campaign ushered in Internet fundraising and the lightning speed effectiveness of Web logs. The next campaign promises a significant increase in Web-based activities; politicians are responding to the reality.

Few are treating it with a LOL — laugh out loud — attitude. This is serious business.

Consider Ari Rabin-Havt, 27, who blogs for a living as a staffer to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., 66. Rabin-Havt's duties include watching the blogosphere for what's being said about his boss and others, and helping manage the blog and other Web-based activities for Reid.

Rabin-Havt said the way politicians and their staffs view blogs and other Internet tools is dramatically different from just two years ago when he was helping Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of Massachusetts with his Internet strategy.

"There was a communications staffer who once said to me — in the summer of 2004 — I wouldn't know a blog if it slapped me in the face," Rabin-Havt recalled. "I don't think that attitude exists anymore."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., responds on a weekly basis to questions on his blog. He also is among several politicians who have recorded podcasts, self-made audio or video broadcasts that can be downloaded from the Internet to a computer or portable gadget.

The former heart surgeon who is considering a 2008 presidential bid said he saw the power of podcasts when one in which he discussed avian flu was featured on a conservative blog and downloaded a million times.

Frist, 54, said the technology allows him to "break through the gaggle of reporters" and "touch people who are sitting in Smyrna, Tennessee."

John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee and a White House hopeful in 2008, recently showed off a newly designed Web site that features a reality television show that tracks Edwards, up close and personal, as he goes around the country.

The former North Carolina senator has favored video blogs, in which individuals submit questions to his site via video and he responds in the same format.

"Where in history has that ever happened?" asked Ryan Montoya, 32, technology adviser to Edwards, 52. "He sees the people, and he is able to respond to their questions directly. That's democracy."

Strategists in both parties say the drive to use new media is simple: It's cheap, easy and more and more people are connected.

According to a survey after the last presidential election, reliance on the Internet for political news during the 2004 contest grew sixfold when compared with 1996.

At the same time, the Pew Research Center poll showed that 40 percent of Internet users found the Web important in helping them decide for whom to vote.

In the 2003-04 election cycle, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean used the Internet to raise tens of millions of dollars and stun his primary rivals early in the campaign. He easily surpassed Republican Sen. John McCain, who had relied in part on the Internet for his fundraising in 2000.

In this election year, Republican gubernatorial candidate and pro football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann of Pennsylvania found his contributions increased when he added a personal touch to his Web site. When visitors click on a "donate" button on the site, a video pops up of Swann telling voters why they should elect him.

"Campaigns are won and lost on a lot more than a simple Web site, but a campaign Web site is step one in determining the voters' ability to understand who you are and what you're about," said Leonardo Alcivar, Swann's communications director.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who is considering a presidential run, recently added a professional blogger to his staff. Warner likes to use video podcasts.

"Things that you can see and hear make a much greater impact than just reading," says Ellen Qualls, Warner's communications director. "Video of the governor is a much more powerful tool than simply an e-mail or blog post from him."

That sentiment should make YouTube attractive to campaigns. The new company lets people share videos through the Web. Each day, 6 million people watch more than 40 million videos on YouTube or through e-mail or posts to other sites, says Julie Supan, marketing director for YouTube.

"You'll never see people enthusiastically sending around an e-mail message from a candidate. But those videos move across the Internet like wildfire," said Carol Darr, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Web site Personal Democracy Forum, which focuses on technology and politics, said Youtube can spark conversations between users, helping to build an online community. He said that is how Dean's candidacy got its strong start in the last election.

Zack Exley, 36, who directed the Kerry campaign's online activities, said e-mail actually sounds old-fashioned to techies, but remains vital.

He says politicians should personalize e-mail messages to keep people reading. For example, he said 2008 candidates could empower supporters, and reward their efforts, by giving them first word in an e-mail of the candidate's pick for a running mate.