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Campaigns go online, but impact of web presence hard to gauge


LOGGING ON: Rep. Tom Latham won re-election with a combination of online and traditional campaigning.

DES MOINES — Iowa’s congressional candidates this election cycle spent more money than ever to expand their campaigns online, according to Federal Election Commission spending reports.

But is anyone paying attention?

The state follows a national trend in which the Internet has transformed the way politicians market themselves to voters, allowing them to reach out to mass audiences on social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Campaigns have spent thousands of dollars to hire consultants to build websites, shoot online videos and craft advertisements for the web.

It’s unclear, however, whether their efforts have an impact on voters. That’s because little research exists to prove the effectiveness of using online tools in campaigns, political experts say.

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“There are little pieces of evidence where, yeah, it might make a difference,” said Seth Masket, political science chair at the University of Denver. “But it’s hard to determine if this helps a candidate win.”

Instead, it comes down to traditional campaigning methods, such as creating strong ground games, television advertising and mailers, Masket and Iowa campaign officials said.

Candidates in Iowa’s 3rd and 4th districts, the two most tightly contested congressional races in the state, spent thousands of dollars on social media, online fundraising and advertising, e-mail blitzes and website development. They also spent as much as $10,000 apiece to access voter databases that provided a list of previous voters and their voting history and helped target potential non-voters, according to campaign officials and financial records.

It’s unclear exactly how much was spent on online campaign efforts because candidates varied in how they reported the expenses, with some lumping them in with other costs.

But spending reports showed a bulk of the candidates’ expenses went to hire consultants, buy advertising and hold fundraisers, according to campaign records.

For example, in Iowa’s 4th District, Republican incumbent Steve King spent $2.4 million, of which $1.1 million went to pay for advertising and mailers. Forty percent of Iowa’s Former First Lady Christie Vilsack‘s $1.7 million was used for the same purpose. King beat Vilsack in a contentious battle in a largely Republican part of the state.

In comparison, Vilsack spent just $18,038 on online advertising and development and another $23,750 on voter databases. King paid $16,157 for online ads.

“Most consumers would say the Internet is great, but now you have so much data you can drown in it if you don’t know how to use it,” said James Carstensen, spokesman for Rep. Tom Latham, who won re-election in Iowa’s 3rd District. “You have more data. But, if you don’t know how to use it effectively, it’s not good. It’s like a bunch of phone books sitting over in the corner of the room.”

Latham, who ran against Democratic incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell, invested $1.2 million of his total $2.4 million in traditional advertising. He also paid Harbinger International, a firm specializing in e-marketing and e-campaigning, $5,250 to help with building an “engaging” website, online fundraising, blog outreach, web videos and social media management, according to the FEC reports.

Boswell also spent more than half of his campaign funds on traditional advertising and polling research to help build a message that resonated with voters. Records show he spent $10,000 to access voter files from the Iowa secretary of state, but other online spending was unclear, according to spending reports. His office did not return calls seeking comment.

“Everything depends on how efficiently you are spending money,” said Tim Hagle, University of Iowa political scientist. “What are you doing to get more votes? And there are times when that same method may not work in a different area. You have to get the right combination of what you do and where you do it.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at

— Edited by John Trump at

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