Everyone agrees the Internet can raise money, but this election might be its first real test as a get-out-the-vote tool. Perhaps that's why there's so little agreement in the political world over which methods will ultimately prove effective.
In a survey of political consultants published in August by the E-Voter Institute, 77 percent said the Internet is an effective way to turn out the base. But there's so little consensus on the specifics that even simple things like offering information on polling places on a candidate's Web site are to some a low priority and to others a basic necessity.
Ben Katz, founder of CompleteCampaigns.com, a Web-based campaign services company based in San Diego, said that although voters might expect John McCain and Barack Obama to post polling place information, he wouldn't advise his downballot clients to expend the effort. There are more effective uses of their limited resources, Katz said, in part because most voters won't think to check a congressional candidate's Web site for such information.
The low barrier to entry makes e-mail a tempting play, but it's text messaging that researchers say is the more effective get-out-the-vote tool.
But candidates and advocacy groups with the means to do so can see benefits from helping get supporters to the voting booth. For the organizations Jim Gianiny serves as president of Democracy Data & Communications in Alexandria, Va., a voting center is a major selling point: "They are facilitating participating in the Democratic process, and that's a really valuable thing."
When it comes to e-mail and text messaging, the waters only get muddier. The E-Voter survey found that political professionals see e-mail as the most effective way to reach base voters, even more effective than direct mail.
But e-mail won't send anyone running to the polls, at least not according to several experiments [PDF] by David Nickerson, a researcher at the University of Notre Dame. Consultants love e-mail, but Nickerson's studies in 2004 and 2006 showed few people actually went to the polls after receiving a reminder in their inbox.
"Even in fundraising, it's kind of a weak stimulus," he said. "You send out 100,000 people an e-mail and you get 100 donors. But it cost you nothing to send out the e-mail and you got back money, so you think this is a good deal."
The low barrier to entry makes e-mail a tempting play, but consultants and researchers alike warn against the trap of sending too many messages, which only erodes the likelihood that any will be opened. It's actually text messaging that researchers say is the more effective GOTV tool. A study [PDF] conducted by a pair of doctoral students found that recipients of a reminder text sent to their cell phone the day before an election were 4 percent more likely to vote the next day.
"Text messaging is still fairly novel and you don't normally get a lot of junk text messages, so people put more value into each text message that they receive," said Allison Dale, a doctoral student at University of Michigan and co-author of the study. Her partner in the research, Aaron Strauss of Princeton University, said the messages probably helped otherwise busy recipients plan their day so they could get to the polls.
Dale and Strauss did find some backlash, however, estimating that about 10 percent of text recipients were annoyed by the small fees that many cell-phone users are charged by their service providers. That worries Gianiny, who said concern about backlash prevents text messaging from being more widely used as a political tool. And just 4 percent of consultants said it's an effective means for communicating with the base, according to the E-Voter survey.
The Obama campaign famously invited people to sign up for a text message announcing his vice presidential selection, which drove up the campaign's list of phone numbers. So far, the camp has used the list to send reminders about watching the debates and urging supporters to donate to the Red Cross after Hurricane Gustav. But expect Obama to cash in on those phone numbers more aggressively as Election Day looms.
In addition to the lists of e-mail addresses and phone numbers, some of the more Web-savvy campaigns have culled data about visitors to their sites and created profiles of likely voters that they'll use to target people with advertising that reminds them to vote while they browse the Internet.
"Google AdWords enables the campaigns to reach their supporters at the moment of relevance, literally the second the voter is looking for information on how and where to vote," said Peter Greenberger, manager of Google's elections ad sales team. "In previous elections, this voter would get a knock on the door, several pieces of mail and many phone calls; this election cycle, that voter will also see a message on their computer screen encouraging them to vote."
Again, Katz said downballot candidates might be smarter to skip ad buys intended solely to get voters to the polls and instead spend time on the basics, such as name recognition. Traditional GOTV canvassing is still widely considered effective. With the exception of text messaging, Nickerson said the more personable the form of contact, the more likely it is to yield results. But even the knock on your door might be the result of an online call for help.
"You should be able to engage your online base and get them offline," said Tracy Russo, who helped run the online campaign for John Edwards. "Use your Web site to recruit extra volunteers to make phone calls, go door-to-door, drive voters to the polls, or step in as an election protection volunteer. This is the time when all hands must be on deck -- literally."
Just how campaigns get them there remains an open question.