With two former candidates already done in by Internet posts and another under fire for comments posted earlier this year on Facebook, it might appear that the online campaign has been a disaster for the NDP. They've certainly been bitten by the "publish and perish" bug that thrives thanks to the low barrier to entry of the Internet, where everyone is free to say whatever they want and often do.
But from a party organizational point of view, the NDP's use of online tools and strategy has been very good, to this observer.
Leader Jack Layton early on in the campaign compared himself with Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama as an agent of change. Whatever one thinks of that comparison, the party has certainly taken a few pages from the Obama campaign's successful Internet strategy:
- Vistors to the party's main website (ndp.ca) are met with a fullscreen invitation to donate to the party, before clicking through to the main site. Obama set a new standard by raising millions from small contributors over the Internet during the U.S. primaries and used a similar splash page.
- Layton, like all the major parties' leaders, has a Facebook page - but unlike Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he didn't cut out comments on his site. That decision came back to haunt him briefly during the controversy over the Greens' exclusion from the TV debates, but made him look democratic and flexible when he responded to this negative reaction from his own "supporters" and dropped his opposition to Elizabeth May's participation.
- The NDP was quick to follow the Conservatives in using "micro-blogging" site Twitter to send out campaign updates - but the NDP has garnered more followers than the other party and has used the short-message service more effectively. They've incorporated a Twitter alert box on their website - and more importanly, are using Twitter to promote speeches and events carried live or archived on their multimedia site www.orangeroom.ca
- As a separate brand, orangeroom.ca it is clearly aimed at a younger, more Internet savvy audience. But beyond style, it gives supporters the tools to contribute their own blogs, videos and photos to the site - as the tagline says, "Create. Share. Be a part of it." Like the Conservatives' now discredited notaleader site, some of this is silly stuff, like a caption contest to put words in Stephen Harper's mouth - but mostly it looks like a sincere attempt to increase grassroots participation in the NDP campaign. Supporters can even sign up to be "rapid-responders" to combat attacks by rival parties - again, a page taken from the Obama campaign's handbook.
It's hard to know how all this will translate into votes on election day. Television ads still seem to reach the largest audience, and the televised leaders debate is still seen as the chance for a party to make a move or reverse a failing campaign. Various tracking polls have the NDP polling anywhere from 17 to 21 per cent of decided voters this week (it received 17% of the vote in the 2006 election).
But in the online arena, the NDP are out in front in terms of harnessing the democratizing tools of the Internet for their own advantage.