Some prophets of the campaign world have foreseen a future where personal interactions between voter and candidate become a kind of antiquated ritual maintained for the sake of tradition. They point to websites such as Quora, Twitter and Facebook to back up their predictions. But despite the explosion of technology in politics, computers alone can’t win elections. If that were the case, the joke goes, then Howard Dean would’ve been elected president. Shoe leather, door knocks and handshakes – and let’s not forget personality -- remain the foundation of electoral success.
But that’s not to discount the effectiveness of the new online tools available to today’s campaigns. “There are some people you can only reach through Facebook,” says Jim Gilliam, founder of NationBuilder, an online organizing tool.
Gilliam, speaking at C&E’s CampaignTech conference Thursday, recounts the story of Alex Torpey, who held the title of youngest mayor in New Jersey after he was elected to lead South Orange last year. During his campaign, Torpey tried to knock on every door in the town of 26,000, which is home to Seton Hall University. After he met a potential supporter, he friended him on Facebook. It’s this combination of old-school politicking and technology that propelled Torpey into office, says Gilliam, who consulted for the mayor. “Just by sheer force of will you can get elected.”
The technology that can be so helpful to politicians can also inspire fear. Some lawmakers consider Twitter and other social media sites nothing more than a dumping ground for old press releases. Just tune into C-SPAN during when the Senate suspends its session and watch the lawmakers’ tweets scroll across the screen. It can be enough to make your eyes bleed. Gilliam’s advice? “Let it flow,” he says. “You’re going to attract so many more people for that honesty.”
Leslie Graves, publisher and executive editor of Ballotpedia and Judgepedia, offers the same advice to new media staffers. “The pattern that you see over and over is new media people that have this great stuff in their heads but can’t get it across to their bosses,” she says.
Ultimately, a thorough knowledge of technology is no advantage without the willpower to put it to good use.