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Ashdown using Net in bid to foil Hatch

Published July 3, 2006 12:30 am

New style: The underdog has received national and international attention for his online campaigning
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The obstacles are daunting.

Sen. Orrin Hatch has mountains of cash, almost universal name recognition and the benefit of being a member of Utah's dominant political party.



What does Democratic challenger Pete Ashdown have?

His computer and a fast Internet connection.

Ashdown isn't ignoring tried-and-true campaign strategies but he is employing some unheard-of Internet tactics in his underdog bid to unseat Hatch.

The owner of XMission, the first Utah-based Internet service provider, is relying on what he knows best to drum up volunteers, endorsements, campaign cash and public attention.

"I realized if I was going to have any chance here, I would have to get creative," Ashdown said.

Here are a few of his ideas: Ashdown allows anyone to help draft his position statements through a collaborative page on his Web site, http://www.pashdown.org. His calendar listing every meeting is available for anyone to see. He writes personal blog items weekly. He interacts on a MySpace.com page. He has online ads attached to 120 other Web sites.

And soon, he will add an interactive map showing his every move as he attempts to visit each city in Utah.

For his efforts, Ashdown has received national and even international attention for some of his online innovations, but a recent poll shows he is still an incredible long shot.

The survey, commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune, found that 72 percent of respondents didn't recognize Ashdown's name, compared to just 1 percent who had not heard of Hatch.

Mason-Dixon Polling of Washington, D.C., conducted the statewide survey over two days starting June 19, talking to 625 registered voters. The poll had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

The poll indicates that 60 percent of respondents viewed Hatch favorably, compared to only 9 percent for Ashdown. If the election were held now, Hatch would receive 67 percent of the vote to Ashdown's 23 percent, with one in 10 voters saying they were undecided.

Ashdown said the numbers are frustrating.

"I feel like we are making progress and then we get polls back and it shows that our progress has been minimal," he said. "But the most important thing in any race is persistence."

Hatch also has a campaign Web site, http://www.orrin2006.com, but it is much more traditional, operating more like a campaign brochure than an interactive hub. And the senator has kept an eye on his opponent's site.

"I think he is innovative," Hatch said.

But Hatch says winning campaigns still come down to a few basics.

"One, of course, is getting out the vote, two is personal campaigning and contact and three is raising money," he said. "Raising money may be the most important thing and that is how you judge campaigns to a certain degree."

Hatch says money not only gives a campaign the resources necessary to attract votes, but also indicates the support a candidate has.

The most recent campaign records on file show Hatch has more than $2 million in his account after spending $1.3 million. Ashdown, according to Federal Election Commission filings, had a little more than $11,000 on hand after spending nearly $46,000.

Ashdown believes a "top down" campaign like Hatch's works when "you have a ton of money and a flatter structure works if you are trying to do things more effectively."

Online campaigning allows the candidate to engage supporters quickly and cheaply, while also empowering volunteers to make some pretty significant contributions. In Ashdown's case, online volunteers help draft his position statements and research his opponent.

Ashdown believes the Internet will reduce the built-in advantages that incumbents like Hatch now enjoy.

"What I hope is the Internet will negate the need for the amount of money that is spent marketing a candidate - that this campaign will demonstrate a way that other people can run for these kind of offices without having to start at the mark of $1 million," he said.

His strategy is to find enough Americans upset with Hatch, primarily on technology issues, to funnel small donations to his campaign. So far money has come in a trickle, not a flood like he expected.

But he has received positive attention from England's BBC, PBS, Wired News and dozens of blogs.

Phil Noble, founder of PoliticsOnline, a consulting firm focusing on online possibilities, said Ashdown should "get a gold medal for being a political pioneer."

"He will go down as someone who helped reinvent the political process in the Digital Age," Noble said. "But technology itself is not going to elect anyone to the United States Senate."

Noble said too many candidates either ignore the Internet or get enamored by the technology and forget that they must present an attractive message to voters.

"Technology doesn't make a bad campaign great and on the same token, a great campaign that doesn't use technology very well is still a great campaign," he said.

Ashdown is not just an Internet candidate. He has driven around the state in his father's old motor home talking to Rotary Clubs and senior citizen centers. He participates in the parades and political conventions. He bought an advertisement in the major newspapers and started to plaster signs on just about anything anyone would let him. He has volunteer coordinators, fundraisers and event planners on staff.

But in the mold of former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, Ashdown's true community is a digital one.

Misty Fowler, a software engineer, has never been active in politics, until she read a story about Ashdown on Wired News.

She then communicated with the candidate on his MySpace page. Since then, she has walked in parades with her children and staffed his table at the state Democratic Convention.

mcanham@sltrib.com

 

 

 

 

 

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