President Obama kicked off his re-election campaign this week not with a speech or press conference, but via an online video. His choice of medium — and the news that he will hold a “virtual town hall” from Facebook headquarters later this month — reflected the increasing importance of the Internet as a campaign tool.
As Obama showed in 2008, candidate websites are a valuable way to spread information, raise money and mobilize supporters. But to fulfill these functions, they need to be well designed and user friendly. Newly published research suggests that, if they want to be competitive in this regard, the next round of Republican presidential candidates will have to do better than their immediate predecessors.
Political scientist Cristian Vaccari of the University of Bologna in Italy analyzed the websites of all the major presidential candidates during the 2008 primary season. “Democratic candidates’ websites were found to offer substantially more features than Republicans,” he writes in the journal Party Politics. This edge in website sophistication, he adds, gave the Democrats “a sizeable competitive advantage.”
Vaccari rated each site by noting the presence or absence of a variety of features, some of which provided information, while others encouraged participation. The specific elements he looked for included video clips, audio clips, downloadable materials, an events calendar, voter registration information and links to social networks such as Facebook.
He found Democratic candidates’ websites consistently had more features than those of the Republicans. Their lead was particularly pronounced among those sites that encouraged or facilitated participation in the campaign.
“Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to offer mobile phone updates, pages targeting identity groups, age groups and voters in different geographic areas, campaign blogs and tools for users to build their own discussion forums and chats, and tools to organize events,” he writes, adding that “they were also faster in answering e-mails from prospective volunteers.”
In terms of specific candidates, “The data also certify the superiority of Obama’s online operations compared to all other candidates,” he writes, “while among Republicans, (eventual nominee John) McCain’s website achieved the highest values.”
Surprisingly, given Obama’s top-rated website and huge success at fundraising, Vaccari found no significant correlation between the number of features on a candidate’s website and the amount of money he or she raised.
Nevertheless, Vaccari concludes that the gap between the two parties’ presidential candidates “may have momentous implications for U.S. party competition, given the Internet’s growing electoral relevance.” If it wants to be competitive, the party of the elephant may have to get more agile using a mouse.