Innovations give candidates new avenues to voters

Political candidates this year have a lot of brand new toys at their disposal to help reach voters.

Campaigns have put candidate profiles on online social networks like Facebook and MySpace. They have uploaded videos to file-sharing sites such as YouTube to broadcast their platforms and, in some cases, for a little political mischief. Some candidates even have doctored the online encyclopedia entries of their opponents to try to gain an edge.

But no one knows for certain whether any of the innovations will help candidates where it counts: at the ballot box in November.

Julie Supan, YouTube's senior marketing director, told The Washington Post last month that she believes her company's service is a "game changer" that enables anyone, including activists and even lesser-funded candidates, to produce content and reach an audience.

Web log authors and online activists loaded hordes of homemade videos onto YouTube in the run-up to this month's Connecticut Democratic primary. Millionaire challenger Ned Lamont largely funded his campaign himself, but the videos helped generate attention for his bid, and he defeated Sen. Joseph Lieberman 52 percent to 48 percent.

A similar philosophy of engaging voters also appears to be behind Campaigns Wikia, an online political encyclopedia that anyone can edit launched earlier this summer by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. In a July mission statement, Wales said Campaigns Wikia and other new online tools are "participatory media" that he hopes will usher in a new era of "participatory politics."

"Broadcast media brought us broadcast politics," he said. "And let's be simple and bluntly honest about it: Left or right, conservative or liberal, broadcast politics are dumb, dumb, dumb.

According to Wales, the wiki model could elevate debate in political campaigns by facilitating the collection of collaborative knowledge. Some candidates already are incorporating wikis into their campaign Web sites. Pete Ashdown, a long-shot Democratic candidate running against Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, allows anyone to contribute to his policy wiki.

"The candidates who will win elections in the future will be the candidates who build genuinely participative campaigns by generating and expanding genuine communities of engaged citizens," Wales said.

Campaigns also are experimenting with social-networking sites, where candidates have created profiles with details about their platforms and tidbits about their personalities.

But some campaigns also have used that arena to take shots at their enemies. Democrats in Maryland, for instance, acknowledged earlier this year that they authored a fake Facebook profile for Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the nonprofit government and campaign watchdog Democracy 21, also said that applications such as YouTube could affect elections because of their broad reach. "Communications is central to politics," he said. "It is central to government. It is central to elections. It is at the core of how our system works."

But Wertheimer said it is still uncertain how YouTube and other new tools can best be exploited to communicate political messages and mobilize groups of voters. He said campaign experts are watching their performance during this year's election closely.

"It's kind of hard to get past the fact that we're still in the middle of the Atlantic floating to New America," he said.

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