Web plays big role in politics

Published 12:47 am Sunday, September 21, 2008

Fewer than 20 years ago, the television or radio commercial, the newspaper advertisement and the colorful campaign sign were the most common tools of political promotion.

Buttons. Note pads with a candidate’s name. Tiny sewing kits. Cigarette lighters. Those were tools, too. And there was always friendly or not-so-friendly chat that ensued when a candidate went door-to door to sway potential voters

But between now and then, candidates discovered a new tool that could be used to take their cause to the voters: the worldwide web.

Email newsletter signup

Bloggers. Web sites. Message boards. Online newspapers. You Tube.

While some of the old forms of campaigning have not fallen by the wayside, they have been joined by a new set of tools that provide new opportunity for candidates to get their message to the public.

Times have changed and on every level, campaigning — as the saying goes — ain’t what it used to be.

Visit my site

While nearly all local candidates still go door to door, still put up those campaign signs and still buy those newspaper ads, more and more candidates are developing Web sites aimed at getting voter approval.

Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens, who is running for re-election, said he has had a Web site every time he has campaigned for office, but he said it has become a more effective tool than in years previous because it is becoming more and more a part of people’s lives.

“More people are used to using it now,” he said.

Stephens said a Web site will allow a candidate to share more information than through other forms of media and he said more people are telling him they have seen his Web site and like it.

“It provides a resource for people to make informed decisions,” he said.

He said he also communicates quite a bit with people through e-mail.

Wayne Pennington is Stephens’ Democratic opponent. Pennington said he appreciates the power of the Internet.

He uses email regularly in his work and reads newspapers online. But he doesn’t have a Web site because he prefers to meet voters in person, shake their hands and hear what they have to say.

“It may seem old-fashioned,” Pennington said. “But I have never had anyone ask me, ‘Do you have a Web site?’ I like face-to-face. That way they can actually ask you a question rather than wait on an e-mail.”

The first local candidate to take Internet use a step further was Lawrence County Commissioner Tanner Heaberlin. In addition to his Web site, he created a page on You Tube, complete with commercials. He said one complemented the other.

“When I put one of my You Tube spots on the Web site, the hits bounced up,” Heaberlin said. He said his Web site gets 20-30 hits a day, sometimes more if there are newspaper articles published about him.

He said one of his You Tube ads has received more than 915 hits and his two other commercials have gotten more than 400 hits each. Heaberlin said the You Tube page has been successful and he plans to add new commercials.

Like other candidates, Heaberlin said the Internet allows him to communicate almost instantly with the public.

“What’s really changed is that programs such as Web 20 makes it easy for people who don’t know a lot about Web design to create a good Web site,” Heaberlin said. “I think it is important to mix technology with grass roots campaigning.”

Les Boggs the Republican who is seeking to unseat Heaberlin, said his Web site is “not as elaborate as it could be” but it has basic information about him and his campaign. He said despite having a Web site, he also still prefers going to door to door and meeting the people he wants to represent.

“You’ve got to do it all. If you want to win, you’ve got to do it all,” Boggs said.

The nasty side

Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin had barely been introduced to the media before she found herself and her family attacked by Internet bloggers who made sport of her pregnant teen-aged daughter, took aim at her rural roots and assailed her small town political career.

Every candidate who steps foot on the national stage these days, be it Palin or any other national figure, at some point feels the sting of anonymous bloggers.

Locally, some have expressed disappointment in comments posted anonymously on message boards and in comment portions of media outlet Web sites.

Both Boggs and Stephens pointed out that message boards can be used against candidates. Some Web sites, such as The Tribune’s, that allow people to post comments anonymously, can be used against candidates by less-than-admiring readers, they say.

“I don’t think all comments posted on the net are fair,” said Boggs, who added he would like to see more responsibility and accountability in blogging.

Stephens pointed out that the anonymity of such comment areas can lead people to make statements they would not have the courage to make if they had to attach their name to their comment.

Pennington agreed that while he does read comments posted about Tribune stories by readers, he often finds those comments to be negative.

“There are some cold comments out there,” he said.

Heaberlin said the comment boards in and of themselves are unfair, as long as people say outlandish things.

He likened the message boards and comment areas to “going to the barbershop.”

“You go there and people sit and talk and give you their opinion, although people are probably going to have more guts to say things if they’re sitting at a computer than if they are facing you,” he said.