THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Canvassing in Cyberspace

Via Twitter, Illinois Comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Hynes likes Notre Dame's hire of Brian Kelly as head football coach and hopes he brings the school their first national championship in more than two decades.

On his home page, State Senator Dan Rutherford and treasurer candidate just sent "Bonnie," his Pontiac with 315,000 miles, to the "recycler in the sky" and replaced her with another of the same make, "Pongee."

Current State Treasurer and Senate wannabe Alexi Giannoulias is more direct in his courting of digital voters, urging them to "Get involved in the campaign by donating, volunteering, writing a letter to the editor or suggesting our Facebook page to your friends."

The common denominator here is that the social media tactics critical to President Obama's victory last fall have trickled down to state-level races in Illinois and bridged the partisan divide.

Republicans have scurried to level the netroots landscape in light of the dramatic shift of young voters (18-29) to the Democratic Party. Candidates of all stripes seek low-cost means of mobilizing supporters in a primary season that straddles the holidays and where turnout in the Feb. 2 election is expected to be lackluster at best.

They negotiate a fragmented media environment where target audiences are elusive and expensive to reach via traditional techniques. More than anything, they exploit an all-of-the-above approach, broadcasting a personalized message that they hope will resonate with faceless partisans on the other end of a wireless connection, the latest manifestation of the candidate-centered campaign.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of an integrated social media platform, but there are numbers to support the democratizing impact of these tools on political consumers. According to data from the National Conference in Citizenship's 2009 Civic Health Index, the "civic engagement gap" is narrower for those who utilize online tools. They collectively undermine the so-called "democracy divide" where engagement is tied to educational achievement and income, adding to the diversity of political participants. Social media tools provide more organic, less-structured, grass-roots opportunities for civic engagement, and these are especially important during recessional times when formal institutional structures crumble.

On many measures of civic health, Illinois fares poorly in comparison to the national average, but state citizens are 7% more likely to use new media tools to stay informed and get involved. According to the Illinois Civic Health Index, a state counterpart to the aforementioned national survey, 63% of Illinoisans generally follow news about government and public affairs. Nearly a quarter (22%) of state residents report using the Internet on a weekly basis to gather information about politics, a social issue, or a community problem, while 25% have watched a candidates' speech online. Twenty-three percent have watched an online video in support of or opposition to a presidential candidate.

Truth be told, the Digital Age is still in its early reaches, especially as far as political outreach goes, and experimental reigns. By comparison, Ronald Reagan was arguably the first president to master the Television Age even though it was at least thirty years in the making. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean elevated the promise of digital media during his dark horse and ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Democratic president nomination in 2004. Barack Obama certainly took it to another level, and has continued his use of social media tools as a means of governance, from maintaining a White House blog to using YouTube to broadcast his weekly addresses. His meteoric rise shook the political world, and fellow office seekers have since sought to capture the same "lightning in a bottle."

Questions remain about the uniqueness of the Obama candidacy and the degree to which social media success can be duplicated at lower levels of office. One could argue that the "rock star" status of our national candidates lends itself favorably to celebrity tweets along these lines, but does a comptroller or county coroner candidate have similar Facebook appeal? On the other hand, given the smaller campaign war chests at the state and local level, not to mention the resonance of "front porch" issues in these campaigns, a personal touch from a hometown candidate may be the modern equivalent of door-to-door canvassing.

While the jury contemplates the verdict on these counts, the candidates continue to post movie reviews and dinner recipes, voting overwhelmingly in favor of Web 2.0.