Politicians Try Out MySpace
Sites to Attract Young Voters
October 14, 2006; Page A4
Luther Lowe already planned to vote for Rep. Marion Berry, an Arkansas Democrat running for re-election in November. But after finding the 64-year-old congressman's profile online at MySpace and Facebook, he was impressed enough to send the candidate a $100 donation.
"He has some funny quotes and talks about himself" in the Web postings, says Mr. Lowe, a 24-year-old from Little Rock. "I felt like I could understand him on a personal basis. It played into the decision of me not only voting, but giving money, too."
Politicians across the country are discovering that a presence on social-networking sites such as MySpace isn't just a way of communicating with voters under 30, it is also a means of attracting volunteers and their donations. Howard Dean's 2004 presidential primary run underscored the Internet's untapped potential as a fund-raising tool, and political strategists say these networking sites go further by helping candidates to home in on specific audiences, beyond those who click on campaign Web sites.
|Political Networking: MySpace pages have helped Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry and California state Sen. Chuck Poochigian get younger voters more interested in their campaigns.|
Sites such as Facebook and MySpace are increasingly popular Internet destinations for young people: cyber-locales where people create their own Web pages, congregate in large numbers and communicate with friends and strangers -- and sometimes politicians. To see if someone is a registered site member, a user can type the person's name in a search bar.
Chuck Poochigian, a Republican state senator from Fresno who is running for California attorney general, joined MySpace in early August. Within two months, Mr. Poochigian reported that the number of online donations to his campaign jumped more than 50%. "It's been pretty remarkable," he says. "There is little question that the level of enthusiasm among younger voters is higher now than it otherwise would be."
Fresno resident Sevag Tateosian, 25, says it was the endorsements by both public figures and MySpace visitors he found on Mr. Poochigian's MySpace profile that convinced him to become a campaign volunteer. "It definitely pushed me over the edge to support him," says Mr. Tateosian, who helps out as a data-entry volunteer. "I was impressed to find him on MySpace. It tells you that he cares about getting his message out to a younger forum."
With almost 500 site visitors having signed up as "friends" -- many under the age of 30 -- Mr. Poochigian's profile includes a full biography, a list of "Poochigian Trivia," and a rolling slideshow from the campaign trail. In the comment forum, friends of "Pooch," as he is nicknamed, post messages of encouragement.
"I didn't know that much about Poochigian, but this page has me sold. He's got my vote," posted user Yik, a 26-year-old man from Davis, Calif.
"Hey, Chuck. Thanks for the add. I put you on my top friends list so I hope that will help get some votes for you!!!" posted Misty, 30, of Caruthers, Calif.
Successful sites take more than a list of policy positions in a flashy font and a few photos. Only 80 friends have signed up to the MySpace page of Mr. Poochigian's opponent, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown -- who cut a youthful figure himself when he was California governor a generation ago. Mr. Brown's page carries little campaign information, save for a few campaign-trail pictures and a video commercial that slams Mr. Poochigian's conservative views. Still, Mr. Brown, a Democrat with strong name recognition, is leading in this race. His fund-raising, too, has far outstripped his rival.
In Utah, Democrat Pete Ashdown, who is running for a congressional seat, says his number of young volunteers shot through the roof after his campaign joined MySpace in March 2005.
"It's the holy grail of politics," says Mr. Ashdown. "The amount of volunteerism was absolutely minimal compared to what we are getting now."
Political scientists, too, are paying attention to the online sites as a way to plant civic awareness in the minds of young adults. "Anything that gets young people involved in politics is great," says University of Massachusetts political-science professor Ray La Raja. In teaching undergraduates, Mr. La Raja has struggled to find an approach that inspires students to become politically active. MySpace, he says, could be that venue.
"Research points out that if people get involved in politics early, they tend to become habitual participants," he says. "Even if kids only donate $5 or $10, they will feel an attachment to the campaign."
That sentiment is echoed by Kenneth A. Gross, a political lawyer with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington and a former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.
"I don't see a downside for politicians unless the solicitation is accompanied by some scandalous personal information," he says, adding that getting younger voters involved "is one of the biggest challenges facing the democratic system."
Politicians with profiles that get the most traffic, including U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, an Ohio Democrat running for governor, know that on MySpace, it is important to do as the under-30 crowd does: make public what is personal -- and don't skimp on the trivial.
Mr. Strickland's profile says he is a Leo with a weakness for Twinkies. A video shows his guitar-playing wife, Frances, serenading him on stage during a campaign dinner.
Since the congressman's online debut in December, he has acquired an impressive 1,440 friends, and online donations are on the rise, according to campaign spokesman Keith Dailey. While not all online donations can be tracked directly to MySpace, Mr. Dailey says the links between MySpace and the campaign-donation page helps.
"We have found a great deal of interest," Mr. Dailey says. "Being on the cutting edge of Internet technologies is increasingly becoming necessary in political campaigning."
In some instances, campaign volunteers such as 24-year-old musician Zachery Allan Starkey of Columbus, Ohio, are using their candidate's page to rally support for upcoming fund-raisers and events. Mr. Starkey uses the Strickland MySpace profile page to promote a concert event, Dance Dance Democracy Party, he's producing for the candidate later this month.
The MySpace profile, he says, made it a lot easier to promote the event. "I was able to get in contact with a lot of politicians and supporters," says Mr. Starkey, who is proud of the planning he put into the show.
"In the end, I want to sit back at night and say, 'At least I did something.' "