Finding Campaign Space on MySpace

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It's not an exaggeration to say that Allan Lichtman is an underdog in Maryland's race for the U.S. Senate. The Democratic primary is two months away and Lichtman has the support of only 4% of party voters, according to a recent Washington Post poll. Yet he dismisses such numbers. Instead, the American University professor points to an unconventional indicator of his popularity:

Lichtman currently has 3,288 "friends" on his MySpace profile, and more show up every day. MySpace, the popular social networking site, is a backbone of Lichtman's campaign: through his profile, supporters can read Lichtman's platform, track upcoming events, contact the campaign and join as volunteers. It's one thing that sets him apart in his Senate race — and across the country. For now, few candidates nationwide have MySpace profiles, among them Phil Angelides in California's gubernatorial race and Ned Lamont in Connecticut's Senate race. But that could be changing fast.

Both MySpace and a similar networking site, Facebook, are poised to have a growing role in November's election, and even more so by 2008. MySpace receives 58 million unique hits a month, most of which come from users ages 18 to 25. Since MySpace is free, it's an appealing way for a candidate to reach younger voters without risking any money on them. Facebook has a format that makes it less easy for political candidates to participate. Yet with more than 8 million student members, Facebook is well aware of its potential. Beginning in September, political candidates and social cause organizations can buy advertising space on Facebook. "In TV and on the radio, broadcasters are required by law to offer politicians ad space at a low cost," says Melanie Deitch, director of marketing for Facebook. "Because Facebook is online, it's not required to discount ad space. But we want to provide a level playing field for all candidates and causes to reach the 18-to- 24-year-old demographic."

MySpace also hinted that it might soon more actively reach out to candidates. "Don't be surprised if we have a channel specially designed for politicians and others trying to make a positive impact on the world," says Jeff Berman, senior vice president for public affairs at MySpace.

Yet how effective will these social networking sites be as a campaign tool? Many politicians are still having trouble grappling with the concept of blogs. Lichtman, 59, didn't even know what MySpace was until his young campaign staffers told him about it last winter. Months later, he has yet to actually use MySpace; its daily maintenance is left to his youth outreach director, Erin Lauer, 18.

Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, which tracks politics and technology, is skeptical. "Because the age difference between the candidates and the users on those networks is so great, the analogy would be a 45-year-old arriving at a frat party," says Rasiej, who served as a chief technology advisor for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "Any campaign that tries these sites will come across as fabricated." The real power of these social networking sites, he says, will come only when a candidate "actually uses MySpace and authentically networks through it. You won't see that until today's young people start running for office and naturally turning to sites like MySpace."

In the meantime, candidates are grabbing for any online youth credibility they can. In some cases, that credibility comes from the candidates' own kids. Ned Lamont's daughter, Emily, runs his MySpace profile for her coursework as a Harvard sophomore. Twenty-year-old August Ritter also oversees the MySpace and Facebook profiles for his dad, Bill Ritter, a Democrat in Colorado's gubernatorial race.

August isn't worried about his dad's lack of hands-on participation. He believes it's enough that his online profiles even exist. "Young people don't see campaigns investing in them; it's the perception that they're not worth the campaigns' money," August says. "When young people see that we are making an effort to communicate with them, they appreciate that we understand that their vote matters."

Such appreciation is evident on the candidates' MySpace message boards. Through these virtual guestbooks, young supporters cheer on the candidates, and each other."Scott," a MySpace member, had this comment on Ritter's profile: "The new era of politics is beginning," Scott wrote. "The youth have decided to make a difference and want our opinion to influence politics. After all, it's our future... You have my vote!"