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Fleshy Handshakes vs. Virtual Handshakes

BY Alan Rosenblatt | Thursday, January 10 2008

Declan McCullagh suggested yesterday that it was the offline efforts, not the online efforts that won the day in New Hampshire Tuesday:

"In other words, it was anything but high-tech. Sure, there were robo-calls and e-mail alerts, but, for the most part, the local events that convinced voters to pick Clinton and McCain could have been convened at any point in the last century."

While I agree with Declan's argument that face-to-face interaction between candidates and voters is essential, there are clearly ways that the internet can enhance the success of these interactions. For example, online organizing on Facebook and MySpace can increase the attendence at offline town meetings. Recall one of Barack Obama's first rallies at George Mason University. Using Facebook to drive attendance, more than 10,000 people showed up to here him speak. Of course, many would have learned of the event without the Internet, but it stands to reason that the use of Facebook "kicked it up a notch."

In addition to using online strategies to drive up attendance at offline events, candidates can also use online video to both extend the impact of an offline event and enhance the event itself. By posting the video of an offline meeting, those who did not attend could see what they missed. And those who did attend could send the video around to their own networks saying, "Hey friends, take a look at how this candidate answered my question this morning at a town meeting."

By streaming the event live and creating a two way engagement with the online audience, people who could not attend in person could attend online in a meaningful way, allowing them to get not a fleshy handshake, but a virtual handshake. Indeed, as we approach Super Tuesday, with states spread out across the nation demanding candidates' attention, it is possible for a candidate to spend a day in the studio and entertain several crowds gathered in remote states in a truly interactive town meeting. No flesh pressing, but plenty of idea exchanging. Conceivably, over the course of a day, a candidate could hold as many as 20 30-minute town meetings.

If these virtual town meetings are set up so the audience physically gathers in a single room to view the candidate on the screen, the technical costs could be minimal. Any community could set up a single webcam pointing at the audience, along with a microphone, and, presto chango, a town meeting is born. And gathering the audience together in a room with a local campaign organizer allows for the event to be very dynamic, before, during, and after the candidate appears on screen.

So, while the ideal situation is to be in the room with voters (and candidates should definitely do this as often as possible), campaigns can use the internet to dramatically enhance their high-touch efforts to engage voters. Yes, shaking hands and kissing babies is a thrill, but in the end it is sharing ideas and values with the voters that matters. As long as candidates can use the internet to genuinely interact with voters in a way that does not smell like avoiding direct contact, the internet can enhance traditional, face-to-face engagement.