Research News

On the Web, Political Campaigns Target, But Do Not Anticipate a Broad Audience

IPR political scientist James Druckman explores digital strategies of campaigns


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In 1996, the first presidential campaign websites went live. Since then, nearly all U.S. senators, representatives, and presidential hopefuls have websites detailing their backgrounds and policies. But how do campaigns use these sites? Who are staffers trying to reach when they post to Facebook or tweet? And what kinds of content are prioritized on official campaign websites?

In a recent IPR working paper, IPR political scientist James Druckman, Martin Kifer of High Point University, and Michael Parkin of Oberlin College examine the motivations of campaign websites—in what the researchers believe is the first study to examine how campaigns interpret and use websites. The three scholars surveyed web administrators of U.S. congressional candidates, who worked during campaigns between 2008–14. Their results reveal that while campaigns yearn for a broad audience, and thus shape the majority of their content to general voters, they recognize that more highly engaged voters and those who closely follow the campaign (i.e., journalists and bloggers) will be more likely to visit the site. Druckman and his colleagues also find that incumbents and challengers use the web differently: Incumbents often use websites to explore their backgrounds, while challengers are more likely to use the website to promote, fundraise, and recruit volunteers.

James Druckman is Payton S. Wild Professor of Political Scientist and IPR associate director. For more information, read the IPR working paper, "Limits and Opportunities of Campaigning on the Web" (WP-15-09).