Kristen M. Clark

Net-working through sites to win races

By Kristen M. Daum

kristen.daum@newsday.com

 

WASHINGTON -- Lee Zeldin of Shirley is using any resource he can to win a seat in Congress this fall - even if some might still be unconventional in the political world.

 

The Republican challenger to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) has a presence on at least six Web sites to promote his candidacy in the 2008 congressional race.

 

On Zeldin's campaign site, voters can see his stance on the top issues. But should they "friend" him on Facebook or MySpace, they will find information a would-be congressman might not normally share - he listens to Johnny Cash and Guns N' Roses and enjoys watching movies like "Wedding Crashers" and "Old School."

 

"We're not just promoting ... we're also able to show them the soul of our campaign and let them know a little bit about who I am," said the lawyer, 28, an Iraq war veteran making his first run for office.

 

While Zeldin's approach toward Internet campaigning isn't yet common in House races, the Web is fast becoming a crucial way to attract voters, and particularly younger ones.

 

Social Web sites, like Facebook or MySpace, are commonly used to meet friends and share information - but they also connect voters to politicians and campaign events.

 

For the 2006 midterm elections, 1,600 federal, state and municipal candidates had Facebook Web pages, the company said. Not even 18 months later, that number has grown to nearly 2,300 - with most for national and state politicians.

 

Bishop was among those politicians to use Facebook in 2006, and he said he will update it for his re-election race against Zeldin.

 

"All these venues, on the Web or in person, help make it easier for Long Islanders to voice their opinions, concerns and support," Bishop said.

 

Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Gary Ackerman (D-Jamaica Estates) also sponsor Facebook pages. Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola) and Peter King (R-Seaford) have pages in their names, but their staffers said it's unknown to them who launched the sites.

 

But for all the widespread use, Web campaigns are not yet a universal trend in politics, said Julie Germany, director of George Washington University's Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet.

 

"Some [politicians] are still very hesitant to devote resources," Germany said, adding many political insiders don't see the Internet as a way to personally interact with voters. "It's going to take some time for everyone to get on board."

 

Facebook started in 2004 as a social network for students at Harvard University - but the site has exploded in the past four years to the fifth-most trafficked Web site, with 69 million active users.

 

The 2008 presidential hopefuls' high-profile online campaigns serve as a prime example of how to engage the digital generation of voters.

 

Sens. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have nearly one million Facebook supporters among them. Obama has three times more than the other two combined.

 

In an age where voters want to know more about the human aspect of politicians than merely their stance on issues, the sites allow even a little-known candidate like Zeldin a chance to make a personal connection.

 

"By stepping out into public service, you have to peel a few extra layers off," Zeldin said. "There's no other way to do it, than lay it out on the table."

 

Zeldin and Bishop said there have been benefits from Web campaigning, like more voter registration and volunteerism.

 

The New York Young Republican Club has noticed the Facebook's fast-growing audience among ages 25-49 and used that to promote events.

 

"I hear in horror from some of our members that their parents are joining Facebook," said Jen Saunders, the club's public relations chairwoman. "It's been great for our club ... and a great tool to spread the word."

 

While the Web is relatively free, money is often not the top incentive for candidates to go digital, Germany said.

 

"Just because the candidate doesn't have as much financial resources ... it doesn't mean they'll go straight to the Internet," she said.

 

But many college-age political groups urge politicians not to miss out on the digital craze.

 

"A common theme is that if it's not on Facebook - it's not really happening," said Ciara Gedulig, Long Island regional chairwoman of the College Democrats of New York.

April 20, 2008 • News • Page A39

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