Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Canvassing in Cyberspace

By Shawn Healy
Via Twitter, Illinois Comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Hynes likes Notre Dame's hire of Brian Kelly as head football coach and hopes he brings the school their first national championship in more than two decades.

On his home page, State Senator Dan Rutherford and treasurer candidate just sent "Bonnie," his Pontiac with 315,000 miles, to the "recycler in the sky" and replaced her with another of the same make, "Pongee."

Current State Treasurer and Senate wanabe Alexi Giannoulias is more direct in his courting of digital voters, urging them to "Get involved in the campaign by donating, volunteering, writing a letter to the editor or suggesting our Facebook page to your friends."

The common denominator here is that the social media tactics critical to President Obama's victory last fall have trickled down to state-level races in Illinois and bridged the partisan divide.

Republicans have scurried to level the netroots landscape in light of the dramatic shift of young voters (18-29) to the Democratic Party. Candidates of all stripes seek low-cost means of mobilizing supporters in a primary season that straddles the holidays and where turnout in the February 2nd election is expected to be lackluster at best.

They negotiate a fragmented media environment where target audiences are elusive and expensive to reach via traditional techniques. More than anything, they exploit an all-of-the-above approach, broadcasting a personalized message that they hope will resonate with faceless partisans on the other end of a wireless connection, the latest manifestation of the candidate-centered campaign.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of an integrated social media platform, but there are numbers to support the democratizing impact of these tools on political consumers. According to data from the National Conference in Citizenship's 2009 Civic Health Index, the "civic engagement gap" is narrower for those who utilize online tools. They collectively undermine the so-called "democracy divide" where engagement is tied to educational achievement and income, adding to the diversity of political participants. Social media tools provide more organic, less-structured, grass-roots opportunities for civic engagement, and these are especially important during recessional times when formal institutional structures crumble.

On many measures of civic health, Illinois fares poorly in comparison to the national average, but state citizens are 7% more likely to use new media tools to stay informed and get involved. According to the Illinois Civic Health Index, a state counterpart to the aforementioned national survey, 63% of Illinoisans generally follow news about government and public affairs. Nearly a quarter (22%) of state residents report using the Internet on a weekly basis to gather information about politics, a social issue, or a community problem, while 25% have watched a candidates' speech online. Twenty-three percent have watched an online video in support of or opposition to a presidential candidate.

Truth be told, the Digital Age is still in its early reaches, especially as far as political outreach goes, and experimental reigns. By comparison, Ronald Reagan was arguably the first president to master the Television Age even though it was at least thirty years in the making. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean elevated the promise of digital media during his dark horse and ultimately unsuccessful bid for the Democratic president nomination in 2004. Barack Obama certainly took it to another level and has continued his use of social media tools as a means of governance, from maintaining a White House blog to using YouTube to broadcast his weekly addresses. His meteoric rise shook the political world, and fellow office seekers have since sought to capture the same "lightning in a bottle."

Questions remain about the uniqueness of the Obama candidacy and the degree to which social media success can be duplicated at lower levels of office. One could argue that the "rock star" status of our national candidates lends itself favorably to celebrity tweets along these lines, but does a comptroller or county coroner candidate have similar Facebook appeal? On the other hand, given the smaller campaign war chests at the state and local level, not to mention the resonance of "front porch" issues in these campaigns, a personal touch from a hometown candidate may be the modern equivalent of door-to-door canvassing.

While the jury contemplates the verdict on these counts, the candidates continue to post movie reviews and dinner recipes, voting overwhelmingly in favor of Web 2.0.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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