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Poll: Online Gov. campaigns offer more than brochures

Step 1: Surf, Step 2: Vote

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Luckily for Sarah Palin, a politician's success these days is measured by Facebook friends, not polling data. Twitter gives us updates on Ashton Kutcher's chest-wax routine, but it also provides a 140-character outlet for old white guys to offer their opinions on healthcare reform and troop levels. And what politician wants to stand in line for an open op-ed slot in the local paper when he can just post his wordy ramblings on a blog?

Candidates in the 2010 gubernatorial race are embracing the various interactive web features that are dooming office productivity everywhere. (We'll provide a brief pause to let you check your Facebook wall.)

In the past, candidates would roll out a bland page of top issues and a brief biography when they announced their campaigns and then forget about their sites.

But a 2008 presidential election driven by interactive features like Facebook, event calendars, and e-mail blasts has awakened candidates to the expansive power of a strong online presence.

"On a state level, it's really in its infancy," says Lachlan McIntosh, campaign manager for Mullins McLeod. "No one was using the web in 2006 like everyone is using it now. Not even close."

Last year's presidential race has also increased expectations for what a campaign site should offer, says Brian McGee, chair of the communications department at the College of Charleston.

"Voters are now expecting a rich, multimedia experience," he says.

That means frequently updated content, while engaging the voters and building a relationship. Gubernatorial candidates are using the technology to varying degrees.

The website for Congressman Gresham Barrett continues to evolve, says campaign spokesman B.J. Boling. The site offers text alerts, streaming Twitter updates, a volunteer of the week feature, and an "Ask Gresham" interactive video blog.

"It's more than just an online brochure," says Boling. "It's an action center where people come in and provide the content — where our volunteers can feel empowered."

And the Barrett campaign isn't alone.

Rep. Nikki Haley posts videos from campaign events, while Sen. Larry Grooms blogs on a daily basis. Sen. Vincent Sheheen has developed niche Facebook groups for groups like conservationists, teachers, and students, similar to what the Obama campaign did in 2008.

Meanwhile, state Education Superintendent Jim Rex is utilizing a successful tool from his 2006 statewide campaign, letting website visitors post personal stories of how Rex has impacted their lives as an educator.

"It gives folks who had known him through the years the opportunity to share a story with us about Jim," says campaign manager Zeke Stokes.

All of these tools help a campaign flesh out the candidate's personality beyond what you can get from a sea of text and Glamour Shot pics.

"They want the people who come to the site to feel like they know the candidate," McGee says.

The internet also provides fresh resources for strained campaigns. In the early '90s, back before the era of candidatename.com, McIntosh remembers manning the copy machine in the campaign office, piling up stacks of paper for handouts and mailers to introduce the candidate to voters.

"In the old days, it was hard to get that message out, particularly this early," he says. Now, the McLeod campaign uses e-mail blasts to drive press releases to a variety of political blogs, including mainstream sites like The State.

Those organizing campaign events used to rely exclusively on phone banks, word of mouth, and campaign mailers. Now, events are driven by Facebook e-vites.

"It's a new dynamic," Boling says.

Just as posting on a blog has evolved from HTML mush to something most of us can manage, streamlined web-hosting empowers campaign staff with little web know-how to take the reigns. But an easier upload still requires staff to create content like blog posts, meet-up notices, Twitter updates, and viral videos. And McGee says some candidates just don't have the resources for a next generation internet presence.

"The demand to feed the beast is enormous," he says. And a plucky, tech-savvy volunteer won't cut it. "You can have multiple campaign staff doing nothing but updating your site."

This early in the campaign, some candidates aren't utilizing every widget in the internet's tool belt, but that will likely change as we get closer to primary elections in June, particularly for candidates with momentum and moolah.

"Depending on the resources, we'll be seeing a professional recasting of these sites," McGee says.

DEMOCRATS

Dwight Drake

dwightdrake.com

The Pitch: "Let's Get South Carolina Working Again"

Drake's site leads with a slideshow linking to his campaign announcement, jobs plan, and his "(500) Days of Sanford" viral commercial. His lengthy, polished campaign video frames his background and his priorities ... if you have nearly eight minutes to spare. There's also a "Spread the word" page where readers can send an e-mail to up to 10 people encouraging them to visit Drake's site.

Facebook fans: 286; Twitter followers: 300

 

Robert Ford

robertfordforgovernor.com

The Pitch: "Video Poker to Save Our State"

Ford's site starts out with a defense of his seminal campaign pledge: returning video gaming back to the days before the lottery, when machines lined the walls of gas stations. The site also highlights Ford's years of service and his "longtime friend and fellow Charlestonian Glenn McConnell," whom we're pretty sure won't be offering an endorsement.

No Facebook or Twitter account.

 

Mullins McLeod

mullinsmcleod.com

The Pitch: "A New Direction for South Carolina"

McLeod's site highlights his out-of-the-beltway background, with the quote, "If we want to change South Carolina's direction, we need to change the people in charge." The site focuses on news headlines, including McLeod's proposals on lobbying reform and job creation, as well as his challenges to other candidates.

Facebook fans: 901; Twitter followers: 332

 

Jim Rex

jimrex.com

The Pitch: "It's time for a turnaround"

Already holding statewide office, it's obvious Rex doesn't have to be as concerned about introducing himself to voters. There is a bio page, but there's a separate page: "Why I'm running." The site is dominated by "Rex in Real Time," a collection of social networking and website updates in sequential order. Visitors are encouraged to share a personal story about Rex.

Facebook fans: 315; Twitter followers: 509

 

Vincent Sheheen

vincentsheheen.com

The Pitch: "Let's Get South Carolina Moving Again"

The issues page focuses on five big-picture areas: the economy, government reform, education, the environment, and healthcare. A standout feature on Sheheen's site is a groups listing, including a Richland County page, students, teachers, conservationists, state employees, and veterans. There's not much of a dedicated presence for these groups online so far, but it could be important in building support and organizing closer to Election Day.

Facebook fans: 965; Twitter followers: 305

REPUBLICANS

Gresham Barrett

greshambarrett.com

The Pitch: "Together we can take South Carolina to where it has never been before ..."

Barrett ditches the standard campaign issues page for an "Ask Gresham" video blog answering specific questions from voters. The site has all the bells and whistles: an e-mail update field, daily updated Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with big, colorful links to videos, photos, text alerts, and an events calendar. There's even a volunteer of the week profiled.

Facebook fans: 2,386; Twitter followers: 2,181

 

André Bauer

andrebauer.com

The Pitch: "Make the Decision to Make the Difference"

Delaying an official announcement while he waited out the Sanford scandal, Lt. Gov. Bauer's site has largely had to play down references to some type of campaign — maybe dog catcher, maybe the top spot in state politics — until just recently. That said, Bauer has a well-stocked YouTube channel, a county-specific feedback system, frequent Tweets, and a unique interactive desktop application for campaign updates and videos.

Facebook fans: 1,281; Twitter followers: 993

 

Larry Grooms

groomsforgovernor.com

The Pitch:"Larry Grooms Helps Save South Carolina Jobs"

A slideshow includes recent headlines, his biography, and endorsements. Grooms has a long list of issues and the blog is updated daily. Grooms may be a little too thorough — there's even a Myspace link. He's a Twitter fanatic, and there's also a campaign polling site, though comments are likely unfiltered — one respondent suggested that Sanford needed to divorce his wife "so I can hook up with that MILF."

Facebook fans: 1,450; Twitter followers: 2,173

 

Nikki Haley

nikkihaley.com

The Pitch: Either "Meet Nikki Haley" or "Contribute"

Both are important for this candidate who has struggled to find her fundraising support in a very competitive field of GOP contenders. Her lack of name recognition statewide has also prompted a special "Truth in Facts" page to address rumors. Haley has utilized online videos more in recent weeks than most other candidates.

Facebook fans: 1,854; Twitter followers: 853

 

Henry McMaster

henrymcmaster.com

The Pitch: "The Path to Prosperity"

McMaster offers the most limited front page of any candidate, but most of what you want to read is easily accessible. The news page is about as exciting as a Google search results page, only with smaller type. The top line on the donation page encourages readers to join "The MAC ATTACK" (his emphasis, not ours). McMaster's YouTube channel includes news stories as well as campaign videos and ads.

Facebook fans: 662; Twitter followers: 1,500

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