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Online politics 2.0: Candidates using Internet to turn buzz into votes

  • Story Highlights
  • In 2004, Howard Dean failed to translate online buzz and money into votes
  • Campaigns are social networking sites like Facebook to organize supporters
  • Online efforts designed to compliment, not compete with, traditional campaigns
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By John King
CNN Senior National Correspondent
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CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- John Walsh is a veteran Democratic operative who concedes technology hasn't always been his strong suit.

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Barack Obama's FaceBook page has nearly 110,000 supporters.

"I describe my technical expertise this way: I don't understand how they put those little people in my television but I know how to use the clicker," Walsh says -- with a laugh.

But he is now the Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman because of his work helping Deval Patrick go from long shot to Massachusetts governor in the 2006 election cycle, in part because of innovative use of the Internet in campaign organizing.

While Howard Dean proved the potential of Internet fund-raising in the 2004 presidential race, he was ultimately unable to translate all the online buzz and money into enough votes -- a lesson to the next wave of campaigns using the Internet as an organizational and fund-raising tool.

Walsh says the lesson is to integrate so called "new media" with traditional campaign operations, something he says the Patrick campaign did effectively.

"Sometimes campaigns say, 'I want a cool Web site. I want to do a blast email. Oh, I want to raise $50 million online like Howard Dean,'" Walsh told CNN in a recent interview. "But the point of the matter is that if you are trying to do that and you are maximizing your success on that, you're leaving a huge amount on the table."

To visit Sen. Barack Obama's campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago is to get a firsthand look at how one presidential campaign hopes to build on the lessons of 2004 and 2006.

Joe Rospars is a Dean campaign veteran who now oversees the Obama new media effort -- and he says one lesson -- echoing Walsh -- is to make sure Internet efforts compliment, and don't compete, with other campaign operations.

The overwhelming focus for Internet groups is on organizing and bringing voters to the polls. Campaigns do this in part by creating tools and software applications that supporters can download to help their efforts.

"Folks are forming their own grassroots volunteer groups," Rospars told CNN during the visit to Obama headquarters. "There are over 5,000 of them across the country. ... Each one of these tools is a piece of the campaign that an individual supporter can own and use to evangelize to their friends."

It is a remarkably young group in the "new media" corner of the headquarters, and Chris Hughes is among the Internet pioneers trying to help Obama. He is one of the co-founders of the Internet social networking site Facebook, and among his contributions to the Obama campaign is a Facebook application that helps Obama supporters lobby their friends in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Hughes demonstrated an application showing which of his friends in Iowa support the Obama campaign.

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The screen not only showed eight Hughes Facebook "friends" in Iowa, but includes notations as to whether they are declared Obama supporters, and whether they have downloaded the special application to help them lobby their friends to support Obama.

"We have a good 20,000 people alone just on this single platform that have this application installed who are going and asking their friends at home to sign up and support Barack," Hughes said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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