In Montana Politics, Web Still Puzzling

By Beacon Staff

When Erik Iverson took over as chairman of the Montana Republican Party last year, the GOP had not updated its Web site since 1999. Believing a state party’s Web site conveys a “first impression” about the organization, he was dismayed by the portrait of Montana Republicans painted by the GOP’s site.

“It was a turnoff,” he said. “It reflected poorly on the party.”

So he made revamping MTGOP.org one of his top priorities. Today, he considers the Montana Republican Party’s Web site among the best state party sites in the country. Traffic to the site is triple what it was last year, providing Republicans an additional 10,000 e-mail addresses for mailings. In October, the state GOP raised $40,000 through its Web site. In May, it raised an additional $100,000 in one day. Last week on the state GOP’s Web site, visitors could sign a petition in support of the Second Amendment and enter to win a .270 caliber rifle. Or they could visit the Montana Republican Party’s channel on Youtube.com to view more than 50 videos.

Iverson’s effort for the 2008 election demonstrates that Montana politics have reached a point where the Internet is no longer solely the provenance of left- or right-wing bloggers, and any robust political movement that ignores the Web can’t be taken seriously. That would come as no surprise to the national and statewide candidates for office already adept at using the Internet for fundraising and communicating with voters, but on this subject, as with so many others, Montana remains fiercely independent. While state party leaders and candidates tout the Web as an inexpensive tool – to reach voters, coalesce groups of like-minded activists and collapse Montana’s vast physical distances – they also acknowledge the Web has limitations.

Tester’s Model
One-third of Montana residents don’t have access to a computer, according to state Democratic Party chairman Dennis McDonald, particularly in eastern Montana. That statistic reinforces McDonald’s advice to all Montana candidates that, while the Web can help, “nothing will take the place of looking voters in the eye and shaking their hand.”

“It’s obviously a tool that every candidate needs to consider, but anyone who thinks it’s going to supplant the necessity of hard work just doesn’t recognize that Montana has not changed,” McDonald said. “Any candidate who might forget that is destined for failure.”

Iverson agrees that a good pair of walking shoes is more useful to a candidate then a sophisticated Web strategy. But clearly, a balance can be struck between traditional campaigning and using the Web.

For many political observers, Jon Tester’s 2006 U.S. Senate victory serves as a prototype for how a Montana politician can harness the Web for fundraising, and without spending much money, help get the state’s burgeoning blogging community behind a candidate by offering extensive access to that candidate. According to Jay Stevens, a blogger for Left in the West, this was a big factor in how Tester beat state Auditor John Morrison, widely considered the establishment candidate, in the Democratic primaries.

“What Tester had that Morrison didn’t have was an activist, grassroots base working for him,” Stevens said. “It was just a really effective use of the tool of the net.”

In this election cycle, Stevens and the rest of the bloggers at Left in the West have used the site for short bursts of fundraising in specific battleground areas. Last week, the site raised $200 for Rep. JP Pomnichowski, D-Bozeman, and has raised about $1,400 for Democrats around the state so far.

Stevens also recently launched a “Montana Election Wiki,” a mini version of Wikipedia in which Montanans can enter information about state candidates for office. Over the course of several elections, Stevens hopes the Wiki will become an online resource voters of all parties can use to find out more about what candidates say now, and what they may have said in previous elections – long after their campaign Web sites have been updated or altered.

The Web can level the playing field for candidates without a lot of money, Stevens said, allowing e-mail to replace expensive direct mail campaigns and online chats to replace costly travel – particularly in a state like Montana, with a big geography and small population.

The 2008 election, like previous elections, presents a challenge for political organizers in Montana to translate the enthusiasm generated by the presidential election to the myriad state and local races farther down the ticket. What is different about 2008 is how the candidates go about accomplishing that task.

The Digital Stump
Tim Fox, Republican candidate for state attorney general, sat in Kalispell’s Hilton Garden Inn last week armed with his Blackberry and laptop. While on the campaign trail he updates his Web site and account on the social networking site Facebook regularly with photos and observations from the places he visits (He boasts of 485 Facebook friends). Fox regularly fires off mass e-mails to the press and supporters, like the request for campaign contributions he sent out during the Republican National Convention titled, “How about that Sarah Palin.”

What Fox likes about using the Web to campaign is that it allows voters to get a better sense of who he is and what he believes – and provides a source for anyone seeking that information 24 hours a day. Opening a Facebook account has allowed him to connect with younger voters, which he enjoys, regardless of whether it pays off at the ballot box.

“Even if it translates to just a few hundred votes, it’s an important part of my campaign in that respect,” Fox said. “This technology has made me, the candidate, much more accessible to the voter.”

As a candidate for an office like attorney general – which requires statewide campaigning but receives less attention than gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races – Fox credits the Web with allowing him to establish relationships with voters in distant parts of the state, but acknowledges it doesn’t substitute for personal contact.

His opponent, Democrat Steve Bullock agrees.

“It’s an effective way to communicate with voters at a low-cost price,” Bullock said, but noted, “it certainly doesn’t replace sitting down and talking to someone across a coffee table.”

Bullock estimates he has raised $50,000 through his campaign Web site so far, from more than 400 separate contributions. Like the other candidates interviewed, he has found that voters use his Web site to contribute to his campaign, usually only after meeting the candidate face-to-face. After that, the Web site makes it easier to donate than putting a check in an envelope and mailing it. But Bullock doubts he receives many contributions based on his Web site alone.

“Montana is still, and remains, a retail politics state,” he added. “Hopefully the Internet never replaces that.”

E-Campaigning in Senate District 2
Brittany MacLean, Democratic candidate for the north valley’s state Senate District 2, is in the process of figuring out how best to invest her campaign’s advertising funds in one of the most hotly contested legislative races in Montana. Like her Republican opponent Ryan Zinke, she is weighing how much to spend on Web ads as opposed to direct mailings and newspaper. It’s a question many candidates for local office have never had to face before this election.

“We’d probably be looking at equal parts,” she said.

After winning the primary election MacLean updated her Web site and she plans to open her own Facebook account. As a first-time candidate these were steps she didn’t necessarily consider when weighing a run for public office, but she has found that establishing a Web presence provides an inexpensive way to communicate with voters.

“It’s wonderful because it’s free for everyone who uses it,” MacLean added. “It’s not just something we put up and we don’t look at – we want people to go there and send e-mails and volunteer.”

Zinke sees a candidate’s Web site as a source of information, not just for his supporters, but for members of the media and opponents.

“The Web site really is a glance at your positions,” Zinke said. “Many Democrats are looking at my Web site to see where I sit on issues.”

Zinke has an update to his Web site in the works, and while he said traffic to his site so far has been modest, it has also allowed him to communicate better with voters. Twice, he said, people who disagree with him on a particular issue have e-mailed him, and a discussion ensued – which, in his mind, is the point of having a campaign Web site. He believes the evolving role the Web plays in local campaigns will eventually carry over to elected officials using the Web to communicate more regularly with their constituents.

“A sitting legislator or governor should have an active Web site in order to make politics a lot more transparent,” Zinke said. “If you don’t have one, the question is, why?”