West Virginian Candidates Use New Media To Reach Constituents

11/01/2010 04:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Morgan Young and Paige Lavender Huff Post Citizen Reporting

The West Virginia Democratic Party recently obtained thousands of student email addresses from West Virginia University that allowed congressional candidate Mike Oliverio, to send a mass email entitled "Former WVU Student Body President," urging recipients to vote in the upcoming general election.

College students across West Virginia have received emails, campaign literature, Facebook ads and more during the elections, and it's not going to slow down anytime soon, according to Curtis Wilkerson, campaign manager for First Congressional District candidate Mike Oliverio (D).

"There isn't a new interest in college students voting; [the campaign methods] have just changed," he said. "We have harnessed some of the technology more, in a way that our opponent has not."

A press release sent by Oliverio's opponent David McKinley (R) publicly disagreed with the manner in which Oliverio's team obtained the students' email addresses. McKinley has also claimed that his campaign team received numerous emails from WVU students who were concerned about their privacy.

Katie Niland, the former State Chair of College Republicans and a student at WVU's College of Law, took offense to the email.

"I don't know if [the email] was unethical because there is nothing illegal about it, but it crossed some sort of line," she said. "I think that it will have a negative effect on the campaign."

Wilkerson said the controversy surrounding the student communication is exaggerated.

"We didn't get any complaints," he said. "WVU gives out this list to whoever requests it. There was nothing illegal, unethical or improper about this."

He noted that the campaign has chosen not to use more aggressive methods to solicit votes. They have opted not to contact constituents via text message, which is one option that's currently available to politicians.

"Well I get annoyed when I get an [unknown] text message," he said. "So we don't go that route."

It is likely, according to Wilkerson, that members of the University's College Republicans contacted the McKinley campaign about Oliverio's email. Still, Wilkerson said that the email was not unusual.

"In campaigns across the country, this is common practice," Wilkerson said.

Oliverio isn't the only candidate using online communication to reach the college student demographic. Current West Virginia governor Joe Manchin III (D) has used various methods of social media to connect a younger voting audience.

"We are trying to reach out to everyone," said Lara Ramsburg, Manchin's campaign spokesman. "Technology today probably reaches out to college students more than others, and we've used technology more in this campaign than in the past."

The senatorial hopeful has a large Twitter following, coming in at 593 followers. The candidate has also posted campaign videos on YouTube and has utilized Facebook to reach state constituents.

"It allows us to reach more people, but it's really about the message and if it resonates, so what we've tried to do with all the media is to make it clear who will stand up for West Virginia and who won't," Ramsburg said. "I think it can only help because it's one more way to reach people."

Online campaigning is beginning to pay off for West Virginia politicians. According to Wilkerson, Oliverio's Facebook ads received 2.3 million impressions in just one week.

"And that's district wide," said Wilkerson. "That obviously drives traffic to our websites; it's really a wonderful thing."

Though McKinley's team could not be reached by deadline, their activism in social media is apparent. McKinley currently sports 229 followers on Twitter and has a continuously updated Facebook page complete with photos and campaign videos.

Still, candidates believe that face-to-face interaction is the most effective way of garnering loyal voters.

"[Social media] was not a factor five years ago; it didn't exist," Wilkerson said. "But standard one-on-one is still the most effective [method of campaigning] by far."