Who has the worst web presences in politics?
Originally published January 8, 2013
Everybody knows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is running for reelection and has national ambitions — but good luck finding his campaign on the Internet.
Google “Chris Christie,” and a Wikipedia bio and his official gubernatorial page come up. Christiefornj.com doesn’t show up in at least the first 200 listings — and if you find it, all you see is a photo, a donation button and a way to sign up for emails.
Christie is an example of a common phenomenon among incumbents: online rot. After many politicians get elected, their focus shifts to their official government websites, and their personal Web presence atrophies, disappears or falls low in Google rankings.
The most recent update on Sen. Kay Hagan’s site was on Election Day 2008, while Sen. Tim Johnson’s site has his plans for the 112th Congress. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has links to his MySpace and Facebook accounts — but no link to Twitter.
“It’s obnoxious, and it’s poor behavior on the part of the campaign,” said Jonathan Karush, owner of Liberty Concepts, an online campaign firm that designed sites for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other candidates. “It’s a systemic oversight. When the election ends, so does the online campaign. But if you’re not working all the time building a follower base and raising money online, you’re leaving yourself extremely vulnerable to challengers.”
Christie, one of the nation’s most popular Republicans, had no personal Web presence throughout his banner year of 2012, when he gave a stemwinder at the Republican National Convention and was the focal point of grief and outrage in Hurricane Sandy’s wake. Instead, he could have amassed a huge national email list to serve him well if, say, he runs for president in 2016.
Christie campaign spokesman Michael DuHaime said the decision came down to the bottom line. Money spent on keeping up an online presence for the governor separate from his official capacities would be counted against a state-set spending cap for the next election.
“If a candidate spent $1 million in 2011 trying to gather email addresses, that’s $1 million, theoretically, that he can’t use in 2013,” DuHaime said. “You’ll find people who might be critical, but there’s a difference between New Jersey and another state.”
But many congressional candidates have even worse presences on the Web. The site for Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), jackreed2014.com, is a blank page, which might make visitors think there’s a problem with their browsers. A Google search for “Jim Risch” yields as the top result a paid search ad for the Idaho Republican’s campaign website, which, however, has a notice indicating a new version is “coming soon.” Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) also has an “under development” notice.
There are, at least according to the first several pages of Google results, no nongovernment sites for Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), all of whom are up for reelection next year.
What there ought to be, online campaign experts say, is some biographical information, links to social media accounts, a donation button and a way to sign up for an email list. Sites can easily be automated to display a politician’s latest tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook posts and mentions in news stories that appear on Google.
That is, the site should provide enough content to both be useful for the campaign and help the page appear among the top Google search results, because sites are ranked based on substance, popularity and how often others link in.
“Why would anybody link to these websites if there isn’t anything of interest there?” veteran Democratic online campaign consultant Karl Frisch asked, noting that Christie’s hard-to-find site asks for email addresses and donations but provides no other information. “That’s not going to do well in searches.”
Most officeholders have robust official sites, but by law, they can’t use those sites, the email addresses they gather there or followers on their “official” Twitter or Facebook accounts for campaigning. So, for instance, @GovChristie has more than 325,000 followers — none of whom he can plead with to vote for him or give him money.
The explanation from many of these online derelicts is that there’s no point spending money during off years tending to their nonofficial online personae.
“It just does not make economical sense to have someone continually updating a campaign website while we were not campaigning,” Risch’s son and campaign spokesman, Jason Risch, said in an email. “The Senator does currently have a Facebook page and a few YouTube pages. As in 2008, when the campaign is in full swing, we will have a more extensive media presence, social and traditional.”
Experts say that’s not a good excuse. “It’s a huge missed opportunity,” said Peter Pasi, a Republican online campaign strategist who worked for Rick Santorum’s presidential bid. “It is kind of inexcusable to not have something going on at all times.”
And Christie’s excuse — that state law makes it difficult — is belied by the fact that New Jersey is also home to a role model for modern online political branding: Cory Booker. The Newark mayor, who toyed with a gubernatorial run last year and is exploring a run for Senate in 2014, is famous for engaging followers on Twitter, and Corybooker.com is so up-to-date that its home page has a recent YouTube message and an op-ed Booker wrote for the local newspaper in December.
Far from spending $1 million, Booker’s personal site runs him an estimated $100 a month, according to co-founder Joe Green of NationBuilder, which provides Web services to hundreds of politicians. The expense is usually easily recovered from donations that surge every time a politician appears on, say, “Meet the Press” or “The Daily Show.”
“It’s much smarter to maintain it not just from a political perspective but a governing perspective,” Green said. Booker “is always tweeting, making funny videos, having an ongoing presence. It’s just good organizing.”
Indeed, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has parlayed his much-lauded speech at last year’s Democratic National Convention into a growing email list of more than 17,000 addresses, a huge amount for a local politician.
“Twitter and Facebook have their place in broadcasting information and providing forums for folks to give quick feedback,” Castro said, “but the reach of a website can be broader, and the ability to collect information is much greater.”
The lack of an ongoing Internet presence is also seen by campaign consultants as a contributing factor to the demise of longtime incumbent Republicans who were ousted in primaries by tea party conservatives in the 2010 and 2012 cycles. They coasted along in seemingly safe seats in deep-red states for decades, having built no online network to tap when the going got rough.
“The general thinking is that Bob Bennett in Utah and Dick Lugar in Indiana took their eye off the ball and weren’t ready for a different kind of election,” said Frisch, a digital campaign strategist who worked for Howard Dean’s 2004 technologically groundbreaking presidential bid. “An upset candidate can now quickly grow an online following.”
That was, in fact, the opening Sen. Ted Cruz exploited in his out-of-nowhere triumph in 2012 for the GOP nomination against Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. By the time Dewhurst realized he was in trouble, he lacked ongoing contact with a broad base of supporters because his site had been dormant — either offline or stagnant — for most of his years in office.
“Politicians need to run constant digital operations, ones that communicate across email, social, online ads and more on relevant current events,” said Vincent Harris, who ran the online campaigns for Cruz. “Failing to do so allows the opposition the opportunity to seize the message online.”
Dewhurst, at least, appears to have learned his lesson. Although he isn’t a declared candidate, his site was updated as recently as New Year’s Eve, and he tweeted — on his personal account — on Saturday.