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Ballot initiatives embrace new campaign tools

The Internet, as a political tool, has been used with mixed results. While it has catapulted fundraising efforts of presidential candidates like Howard Dean and Barack Obama, and helped campaigns harness thousands of small donors, many lower-profile campaigns still struggle with how the Web can help their election prospects.

But as a political organizing tool, some say the Internet may soon change the face of initiative politics in California.

For the prototype of some of those changes, they point to the campaign for Proposition 2, which would require most farm animals to be able to fully extend their limbs or wings, and fundamentally alter many commercial farming processes.

The Yes on 2 campaign has been aggressive in its online strategy, both in fundraising and as a way to rally activists. They have hired Dean's online guru Joe Trippi specifically to focus on Web strategy, and are using sites like Facebook and Twitter to help with everything from gathering the signatures that got the measure on the November ballot, to fundraising, to helping volunteers create their own Yes on Proposition 2 campaign commercials.

Trippi says the approach taken by the Yes on 2 campaign cannot work for every initiative, but the tactics could help transform proposition politics in California.

To have a successful online campaign, you need two things, says Trippi. "People at the grass roots have some energy and passion around an issue and, you have to be able to build a community. The Prop. 2 people have been able to do both."

The No on Proposition 2 campaign is being funded primarily by commercial agriculture interests, who say the initiative will send production costs, and food prices, soaring. Among them are the commercial egg producers, who say the initiative would decimate the egg industry in California. "I don't think the egg industry has the option to run this campaign," says Yes on 2 campaign manager Jennifer Fearing. "They're running a big money, big interest campaign. They will have dramatically fewer donors with a direct financial interest in the outcome. We have to go to the masses."

Political consultant Matt Rexroad says the role of online campaigning is a topic of much debate among political consultants. Rexroad has run many legislative races, and has yet to see online fundraising pay big dividends in legislative races.

"A candidate could be running for Modoc County Supervisor, and they think they're going to raise money on the Internet just like Barack Obama. It just doesn't work that way," said Rexroad. "My experience is that you're never going to raise more than $5,000 from the Internet in a legislative race."

Rexroad says social networks can be valuable in communicating with core supporters, but is not convinced an aggressive online campaign can increase that base of support.

"You can use these things to facilitate helping to manage your base. In terms of bringing in anyone new, I'm not convinced," he said.

Rexroad is also involved in the Proposition 11 campaign to change the state's redistricting laws. Unlike Proposition 2, which was able to build its online network from the Humane Society's donor list of 1.2 million animal lovers, there aren't exactly a deep well of redistricting activists to draw from.

As such, the online strategy for the Proposition 11 campaign is still up in the air. "This is one of the things that is going to be part of the strategy, but exactly what remains to be seen," said Rexroad.

But the Proposition 2 campaign has used online networking sites to exploit the existing core of interested volunteers. Fearing says has received 4,800 small donations, with an average gift of $66. Many of those have come online.

Trippi says the effects of social networking and online campaigning may be more strongly felt in initiative campaigns than legislative or even statewide candidate campaigns.

"One of the things that's different about an initiative is that a candidate can make a big mistake that takes the entire agenda of that candidate down. With an initiative, I think California's ability for citizens to come together to put prop 2 on the ballot and be part of the critical group on funding and organizing it to win. It's unique to California in many ways."

Fearing says the online army was pivotal in getting Proposition 2 qualified for the ballot in the first place.

"In the signature gathering process, we had 4,000 volunteers gather 500,000 signatures," she said. "If each signature costs at least a dollar to get, that's $500,000 we saved from just tapping our volunteer base."

"That's very unique to this campaign," says Fearing. "People who care about animals are very active."

Trippi says online strategy is no substitute for television commercials and other fundamental building blocks of California campaigns. But an effective online communications system can help gin up core supporters, and that could potentially make a difference.

"You're going to have a lot of campaigns in California that have millions of dollars," he says. "But when, in any of these elections, if it comes down to 2-to-3 points, it's going to be the campaign that has a grassroots organization that makes the difference."

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