Candidates court young voters online
All but three of the announced presidential hopefuls have public pages on Facebook and MySpace.
By STEPHANIE GARRY
Published June 8, 2007
John McCain has 35,500 friends on MySpace.com. On Hillary Clinton's page, you can learn that "chocolate" is her worst habit. And Mitt Romney listens to Roy Orbison, according to his Facebook.com profile.
Once the headquarters for aspiring rock bands and drunken photos, social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are turning their young users to politics – and presidential contenders are eager to meet them.
"This is a real coming of age moment," said Lee Rainie, founding Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Everybody's in this space now because it's an incredibly popular space for young people."
All but three of the 17 announced presidential candidates have public pages on both Web sites.
A notable exception to the trend: Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. His MySpace page is private and he has no Facebook page.
Candidates, said Marynia Kolak, are simply dealing with the reality of where youth get their information. The 23-year-old has checked out Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's profile on MySpace.
"They have to do that kind of thing because that's where young people are networking these days," said Kolak, 23, an intern at the U.S. Geological Survey downtown St. Petersburg. "It seems like a necessity."
But no one knows if candidates' online "friends" will show up on Election Day, or if youth, notorious for low turnout, will respond to online campaigning.
Though young people gravitate to the sites, there's also no guarantee that all the users are young.
And the Internet, as a breeding ground for rumor and vitriol, poses a danger to candidates willing to ally themselves with strangers. Candidates also could lose control of their message.
That happened to Obama when a page supporting him gained a 160, 000-large friend network. The campaign finally took it over.
"We're in uncharted territory here, so it's hard to look into a crystal ball," said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for Obama. "It's impossible to predict the future, but what we see out there is a vibrant, excited community."
The sites allow candidates to target groups of people with the same political beliefs. For users, in turn, adding a candidate as a friend is a way to identify oneself, just like listing a favorite band or book.
"For younger people ... life is about identity creation," Rainie said.
Candidates try to blend in with the social atmosphere answering personal questions about their favorite music, movies and hobbies.
John Edwards has posted more than 300 photos. Clinton asks what her campaign song should be. Top suggestions so far: "Rock This Country!" by Shania Twain and "I'm a Believer" by Smash Mouth.
The sites themselves are launching special features to aid politicians in their quests.
MySpace.com has started an initiative that rotates a spotlight on presidential candidates' profiles to encourage political and social action.
Supporters can make donations, although they aren't necessarily tracked by site. And they can place a banner, which looks like an ad, on their personal pages. MySpace, which had 66 million unique U.S. visitors in April, calls them the yard signs of the 21st century.
When Facebook recently allowed users to design their own features for their profiles, the Obama campaign jumped on board, making a tool that displays campaign updates and connects users with their friends in early primary states. Nearly 13, 000 people have subscribed.
And YouTube, another site with social, interactive features, last month launched You Choose '08 Spotlight, which puts videos of candidate interviews online.
The key for candidates, however, is to turn their online presence into action, said Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet at George Washington University.
"You have to find some sort of way to get them involved," she said.
For the midterm elections in November, Facebook allowed users to pick candidates and causes to add to their profiles. Chris Kelly, Facebook's vice president, believes the site played a role in the spike in youth turnout for the midterms. About 24 percent of those ages 18 to 29 voted in 2006, the highest in at least 20 years, according to pollsters.
"There's an incredible potential to drive an even larger turnout increase in 2008 than there was in 2006," Kelly said.
Rainie said it would be difficult to determine the exact cause of the midterm spike, but noted Kelly's assertion is plausible.
Facebook has nearly 25 million active users, who spend an average 20 minutes on the site. The average user is 20 years old.
Billy Schmidt, 22, chairman of the College Republicans at the University of South Florida, used Facebook to coordinate more than 100 supporters for Gov. Charlie Crist last year. It's a great tool for organizing, he said, but it still can't replace traditional face-to-face campaigning.
"Facebook allows us to actually go out and network with these people a lot easier," said Schmidt, whose group will use it again once a Republican nominee is picked. "It's a nice extra edge. It's not the be-all end-all.
Still, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign has tried to use the Web to overcome lagging name recognition, said Stephen Smith, director of online communications for the former governor of Massachusetts. In March, the campaign used Facebook to rally volunteers for a meeting of conservative activists where Romney won the straw poll.
"The likelihood of you shaking a candidate's hand is small," Smith said, "but through these technologies you have a much greater chance of having a real one-on-one interaction virtually."
Some candidates are sparing no effort. The Edwards campaign has saturated the online scene with pages on 23 sites. It's also hired Joe Trippi, campaign manager for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who started the online push in his 2004 bid for the presidency when other hopefuls were taking a wait-and-see approach.
Ben Brandzel, director of online communications for Edwards, said the campaign considered the power of friend-to-friend referrals when developing its strategy. "It makes everyone a more powerful communicator because everyone's audience expands," he said.
But the Dean campaign also illustrated that online support doesn't guarantee victory. His candidacy imploded when he finished third in the Iowa caucuses despite the Internet buzz.
"At the end of the day, developing authentic community wasn't enough to win," said Germany.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at 727 892-2374 and at firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are a few examples of what you can learn about some of the presidential hopefuls on MySpace.com and Facebook.com. You must be a registered user of Facebook to view the profiles.
She's a "lousy cook" who likes to speed walk and watch American Idol. Her last music purchase: Carly Simon's Into White. She has 21, 300 supporters on Facebook and 86, 800 on MySpace.
Enjoys basketball and running. His favorite movie is the Shawshank Redemption. A favorite book: The Working Poor: Invisible in America, by David Shipler; has 39, 200 friends on MySpace, 7, 400 supporters on Facebook.
Watches "24." His favorite book: For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway. His heroes are Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater; has 3, 100 supporters on Facebook, 35, 500 friends on MySpace.
Likes Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and The Fugees. A favorite movie: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Quote: "The Arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." (MLK); has 95, 700 friends on MySpace, 87, 600 supporters on Facebook.
On Facebook: Likes to water-ski and ride horses with his wife. A favorite book: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Quote: ""The pursuit of the difficult makes men strong' - something my father, George Romney, always used to quote." Has 9, 000 supporters on Facebook; 23, 000 friends on MySpace.
Doesn't have public profiles
Other candidates online
Joe Biden: www.myspace.com/bidenforpresident
Rudy Giuliani: www.myspace.com/joinrudy2008
Duncan Hunter: www.myspace.com/duncanhunter
Dennis Kucinich: www.myspace.com/denniskucinich
Ron Paul: www.myspace.com/ronpaul2008
Chris Dodd: www.myspace.com/senatordodd
Mike Gravel: www.myspace.com/mikegravelforpresident
Jim Gilmore www.myspace.com/gilmoreforpresident
Tommy Thompson: www.myspace.com/tommythompson08
Tom Tancredo: www.myspace.com/thomasgtancredo
Sam Brownback: www.myspace.com/sambrownback
Bill Richardson: www.myspace.com/richardsonforpresident
[Last modified June 8, 2007, 14:41:56]
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