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Will Web 2.0 efforts pay off for candidates in today's Iowa caucus?

Candidates are using new technology well for fundraising, but must translate online buzz into votes

By Heather Havenstein
January 3, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Three days ago, Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) campaign launched a new application on the Facebook social network that directs supporters to a page listing members with a connection to Iowa. The application directs Facebook users to urge those friends to the caucus tonight in Iowa, noting that "If they don't come out and support Barack, there's no guarantee he'll be the Democratic nominee."

With tonight's Iowa caucus officially kicking off the election year, Obama and other candidates who have been using new Web 2.0 tools to raise money and galvanize support are kicking their efforts into a higher gear.

But will the number of Facebook "friends" a candidate has amassed or the number of YouTube video views that a campaign tallies really matter in the election? The answer, according to experts watching the first presidential campaign in the Web 2.0 world, is yes and no.

Some candidates -- most notably Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) -- are using the Internet effectively to translate grass-roots support into successful fundraising. But Paul and most of the other candidates (with the possible exception of Obama) have failed to translate online interest in social networks like MySpace and Facebook into offline efforts to gain votes.

Matt Pace, director of new markets at Boston-based Compete Inc., a firm that measures how the 2.0 efforts of candidates are engaging voters, noted that while Paul "owns the online space, completely trouncing every rival on both sides of the aisle with online activity," he is also polling way behind his rivals.

"It is great to have Facebook friends and MySpace friends that translate into offline activity," Pace said. "The rubber meets the road in what these friends are willing to do for you. Can you really judge that on MySpace?"

Pace added that former Gov. Mike Huckabee in December took a page from Paul's playbook by beginning to accumulate supporters on Meetup, a site that helps groups organize in-person activities. Huckabee "has been able to marshal his evangelical support" into parties and fundraisers nationwide, Pace noted.

As of Jan 1., Huckabee had more than 7,000 supporters listed in Meetup, trailing only Paul's 88,000 Meetup supporters.

But in terms of sheer numbers across the whole Web 2.0 world, Obama leads the presidential pack with more than 204,000 MySpace friends and 172,000 Facebook supporters, far outpacing all the candidates from both parties. On Dec. 31, Obama's campaign tallied 6.6 million YouTube video views, trailing only Paul who pulled in more than 9 million video views that day.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, a site that tracks how candidates and their supporters are using the Web, said that to date Obama has had "the greatest amount of success with Facebook and MySpace in terms of visible supporters." However, he noted that the next few weeks will determine how valuable those big groups really are to the Democratic candidate.

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