In all the recent hubbub over Mayor Ray Nagin's and the New Orleans City Council's email accounts, one thing has been overlooked: Next year, when the citywide and U.S. Senate elections are held, some voters will have never known a world without email. It's a digital divide that's largely generational, and politicians are just beginning to grapple with it. "I wouldn't know a Twitter from a tweeter," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joked last month.
The joke may have been on her, or at least on her ill-fated 2008 presidential campaign. A June study by the Pew Institute found President Barack Obama had bested Clinton in every online activity, from organizing and fundraising to GOTV (get out the vote). Seventy-four percent of Obama voters had gotten political news and information via the Internet, compared to 57 percent among Clinton voters. That changed the financial paradigm as well; nearly half of Obama's record-breaking war chest came from donors giving $200 or less, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Clinton, unable to match Obama's online prowess for organizing and fundraising, ended her campaign in the red.
That digital divide should be an ominous sign for politicians struggling to understand or navigate the new Web-based world of elections. Today, one-third of American adults now have profiles on social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, and 65 percent of teenagers are already there. LinkedIn has 57 million registered members, while Facebook has 60 million. That's a deep pool of potential voters — and potential donors.
Louisiana politicians have noticed and already are grappling with the technology, hoping to get their heads (and their arms) around it, with mixed results. U.S. Sen. David Vitter used frequent email blasts to raise money in the second quarter of this year. He also has a Facebook presence, but as of last week, he had only 1,290 supporters there; his senior Louisiana senator, Mary Landrieu, had 1,370. Incumbents like Vitter and Landrieu have name recognition and high-value donors already locked up, but so did Obama. Much of his unprecedented fundraising results came via microdonations from online supporters — 3 million of them on Facebook alone. Many of them, feeling empowered and connected to the candidate, went on to work for his campaign.
Established candidates like Landrieu and Vitter might not feel the urgency to embrace social media — Vitter has a perfunctory presence on Twitter, and Landrieu, according to an aide, has no plans to join — but more and more ambitious newcomers see social media as an entree to elected office. James Perry, a New Orleans attorney and community organizer, was one of the earliest declared candidates for mayor this year. He has adopted an aggressive online strategy, including a slick Web site that, he says, will be relaunched soon with a new model based directly on Obama's campaign site. When Shelley Midura announced she would not seek re-election to the City Council's District A seat, one of the first potential challengers mentioned in the media was Karen Gadbois, a local activist who came to prominence through her blog, Squandered Heritage. Gadbois has become a formidable gadfly in backstage council politics.
Unlike Perry, Gadbois has not formalized her intention to run, and both candidates would have a tough slog raising the kind of money needed for a mayoral or council campaign. But precedents are emerging. Take Nick Shalosky, who late last year became the first elected gay politician in South Carolina when he was elected to a Charleston County School Board seat. Shalosky ran his entire campaign on Facebook, didn't spend a cent on campaigning — and he's 21 years old. It helped that Shalosky's school board race was low profile, but his win, like Obama's use of the Web in the presidential contest, proves that the Internet as a campaign tool is an integral part of politics today.
Older voters may view both Obama and Shalosky as anomalies, but politicos should know better. With the voters of tomorrow participating in social media in ever-increasing numbers, it's clear the candidates of tomorrow need to learn the digital ropes as well. At one time, radio and television ads as well as telephone polling were new political tools, too. It would behoove any candidate — of any age — to learn the difference between a Twitter and a tweeter.