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Bentley Political Science Professors Examine 2008 Presidential Candidates' Websites

April 19, 2007

A Bentley College study has found that the current field of presidential candidates who have the "most comprehensive and innovative websites" have also raised the most money, according to Bentley Political Science professors Christine B. Williams and Jeff Gulati, who have just completed an initial and general analysis of the nine Democratic and 11 Republican presidential candidates' websites. The two professors conducted a similar analysis of the 2006 and previous years' Congressional campaign sites.

While the candidates who raised the most money in the first quarter are also the ones who currently have the "most creative" websites, it's important to note that more Democratic than Republican candidates have fully developed websites, according to Williams and Gulati. To date, 20 candidates have declared their candidacy for president or established exploratory committees and launched official campaign websites.

"The surprise is not the bare bones, undeveloped sites, but the depth and sophistication of so many sites this early in the campaign," says Williams. "And these presidential candidates' websites are much more interactive than the Congressional sites we studied in 2006."

So far the sites are primarily about promoting the candidates and collecting donations and contact information, according to Williams. Only three candidates -- Senator Barack Obama, Senator John McCain, and former talk radio host John Cox -- provide a voter registration link.

Some website innovations introduced in the 2004 presidential election have become commonplace, according to Williams and Gulati, while others have yet to catch on. For example:

  • Sixteen of the 20 candidates have a blog and nearly all allow visitor posts.
  • Fifteen of the candidates link to one and usually several social networks; two without links allow visitors to join a social network on the candidate's own site.
  • Thirteen of the candidates provide message boxes for entering a custom or prepared message to e-mail friends encouraging their support or contributions; a few allow the sender to track their responses.
  • Six candidates currently offer RSS feeds.
  • Five candidates have used splash pages as introductory covers before entering their sites.

 

In contrast to how most candidates managed their blogs in 2004 and 2006, current blogs are more open and participatory, say the professors.

 

But there still remains a huge variation in how the blogs work, their level of organization, and how active they are in terms of the number of posts and comments, says Williams.

 

Some sites tell you who is currently online while others list or link to a blog roll (recommended independent, i.e., off-site, bloggers). Former Senator John Edwards and Representative Dennis Kucinich even have a 'Help' section to explain new technologies and how to use them.

 

"As the campaign progresses, however, and the comments of staff or supporters attract more scrutiny, it will be interesting to see how campaigns exert control over the messages and messengers on their blogs," says Gulati.

 

Some candidates offer unique features on their websites. For example:

 

  • Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offers state-by-state talk radio station information.
  • Former Senator Mike Gravel offers an e-poll.
  • Senator Christopher Dodd offers a chance to create your own audio testimonial.
  • Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, and Representative Duncan Hunter offer podcasts.
  • Senator John McCain had a contest (Basketball Bracket) to pick winners for prizes.

 

Traditional web content often gets a new twist on some sites. While every site solicits contributions, some tally the total number and dollar amounts of contributions. Senator McCain lists the supporters who have raised the most by name and amount while Senator Clinton has viewers set up an account to get credit for contributions, tracking how much they've raised. Event finders (by zip code, state or region) help visitors locate campaign venues quickly, and many sites facilitate creating or hosting events.

 

In addition, there is more video content, often on the homepage and in some cases initiated automatically without being selected or clicked to open. Websites are packaging short clips from multiple sources, not just news reel footage. There are interviews from television shows such as The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, and The O'Reilly Factor, as well as from the major news networks. YouTube videos supplement the candidate's own coverage of campaign events; Senator Barack Obama even invites viewers to send in their photos and videos from the campaign trail.

 

Some of the candidates' websites have invested a great deal of space promoting a particular feature. For example:

 

  • Senator Hillary Clinton promotes signing petitions (currently, on the war in Iraq and regarding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales), although others use this feature as well.
  • Former Senator John Edwards has an extensive blog, including live chats, and organized by groups in each state.
  • Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain have provided extensive tools to create a social network on their sites.
  • Senator Joe Biden (endingthewar.com; planforIraq.com; headtohead08.com) and retired U.S. Army General and potential presidential candidate Wesley Clark (stopIranwar.com) sponsor and promote issue sites at independent URL addresses.
  • Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has extensive video clips, organized by topic with play times.

 

Professors Williams and Gulati will update their findings on the presidential candidates' websites over the course of the campaign.

 

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