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What’s In Candidate Websites?

- March 9, 2008

It has become virtually certain that political candidates will have websites. And yet rigorous research about how candidates use the Web to present themselves is in short supply. Instead, we get breathless speculation about new technologies (“OMG, John Edwards is Twittering!”). Three recent studies are a welcome contribution.

This paper (.doc file), by Jamie Druckman, Martin Kifer, and Michael Parkin looks at 444 Congressional campaign websites from the 2002 and 2004 elections. Here are some notable findings:

* Only 44% of websites included audio or video content. Such content was more prevalent in Senate candidate websites than in House candidate websites.

* About 20% of websites were not updated.

* Personalized content for the user — such as taking a quiz or providing information for targeted marketing — was less common, but became more so in 2004, when 29% of websites had such content (vs. 18% in 2002).

* Only 10% of websites had interactive content, such as a chat with a candidate or a forum.

* Incumbents invest less in their websites, as measured by whether they are updated or have multimedia content. Incumbents have less incentive to make these investments because presumably they are less in need of votes.

* Democrats are more likely than Republicans to include personalization features and two-way communication.

* Candidates in competitive races are more likely to update their pages and to provide multimedia content, but less likely to provide a link to an external party website or to allow two-way communication. Candidates in close races have more incentive to control the flow of information, and external links and two-way communication reduce their control.

Druckman, Kifer, and Parkin conclude:

bq. …we have shown that candidates have generally moved beyond an “electronic brochure” standard although they have had some trepidation in doing so. Moreover, our results show that their hesitancy in using these technologies is not only based on practical considerations of feasibility but also on critical political considerations that force candidates to weigh the strategic benefits and costs of each feature.

The second paper is by Tracy Sulkin, Cortney Moriarty, and Veronica Hefner. (Here is an earlier but ungated version.) They examine the issues candidates emphasize on their websites and in their televised advertising. Some of their findings:

* Because websites are far less costly than television advertising, candidates mention far more issues on-line than in their advertisements, where they are much more selective.

* Candidates are more likely to use their websites to appeal to core supporters, who likely make up most of the viewers of these websites. Thus, Republican and Democratic advertisements have more similarities than do their websites, where each party’s candidates devote more attention to issues that appeal to elements of their coalition. For example, Democratic candidates were more likely to discuss civil rights on their websites than in their ads.

* Candidates tend to take more specific positions on their websites than in their ads, perhaps because they simply have more space to expound on their ideas.

Finally, a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of the 2008 presidential candidates’ websites is here. These websites are more sophisticated, on average, than those examined in the Druckman et al. study, probably reflecting the greater penetration of technology in 2008 versus earlier elections and most certainly reflecting the greater resources of the presidential candidates versus congressional candidates.

Each of these studies is well worth reading. The chief lessons, to my mind, are three. First, although journalists will be quick to highlight new innovations in web-based campaigning when they first appear, most candidates will be late (or later) adopters. Second, some of the same incentives govern web-based communication as they do other forms of communication — e.g., it may behoove candidates in competitive races to keep tighter control over information. Third, websites are designed for a fundamentally different audience, which is likely to support the candidate whose website it visits. Thus, web content has less potential to change anyone’s mind, and, if anything, will tend simply to reinforce existing preferences.