Phil Angelides, California's Democratic candidate for governor, had nothing to do with creating a MySpace page under his name. His teenage daughter was the first to point out his presence on the popular online hangout.
But rather than kill a volunteer's unauthorized efforts, the campaign has embraced the youth-heavy site, using Angelides' personal profile page to post position papers and other announcements. It also scans the comments section to gauge what's on youths' minds, turning it into an informal focus group.
"We've come to embrace it as our own," campaign spokesman Brian Brokaw said. "It can help you reach an audience that otherwise might be more difficult to reach. Not as many young voters watch the evening news."
The campaign has also turned to video-sharing site YouTube.com to circulate campaign ads, speeches and other clips.
Campaigns hope user-driven sites will mobilize youth
In many ways, these free, user-driven community sites are to this year's races what blogs were to campaigns two years ago. They are not replacements for traditional staples like TV ads and direct mailings, but they offer the latest venues for campaigns to reach younger voters and mobilize them to volunteer.
"If you're looking to find somebody who's going to spend 22 hours putting up signs for you, I'd go to MySpace," said Phil Noble, who runs the PoliticsOnline consulting firm.
Rod Shealy, a consultant for two Republican candidates in South Carolina, said several volunteers emerged after the campaigns blasted help requests to hundreds of MySpace supporters.
"It's (like) the soda fountains of the 50s," he said. "It's where young people hang out."
Supporters and opponents alike have even created profiles — unofficially — for the 2008 presidential race. One MySpace page for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, declares her "The President of the United States of America."
Politicians join businesses, news organizations and others looking to exploit the growth in user-driven sites. Campaigns face greater headaches in controlling their message, but supporters say such sites offer more good than harm.
Driven largely by word of mouth, News Corp.'s MySpace has rapidly risen to become the second-busiest site in the United States, behind Yahoo Inc., according to comScore Media Metrix.
Its more than 100 million registered users can share messages, songs, photos and video on profile pages. They can designate other MySpace users as "friends," building a network that grows as friends link to more friends, and so on.
Angelides, currently California's treasurer, has more than 5,000 friends — and counting.
MySpace 'friends' are like 'endorsement list'
"It's almost like an endorsement list," said Steven Clift, editor of the Web site Democracies Online. "Pictures show up, and it gave me the impression that these are real people who support these people."
Ned Lamont, who defeated Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in last week's Connecticut primary, had more than 175 MySpace friends.
Although it's not possible to isolate MySpace's contribution to the win, its ability to mobilize friends and those friends' friends created "waves of support that Lamont was able to catch," Steve Schneider, a political science professor at the State University of New York Institute of Technology.
Many candidates, however, are sitting on the sidelines for now.
Although California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign has turned to YouTube to circulate critical information on Angelides, his MySpace profiles are all unauthorized, some even unflattering — Adolf Hitler is a friend at one. (MySpace will remove fake profiles after receiving complaints, but not all candidates bother, and some parodies are protected.)
Russ Kelly, spokesman for GOP gubernatorial candidate John Binkley in Alaska, questions how these efforts will translate into votes. He recalled how Democrat Howard Dean had embraced cutting-edge Internet tools during the 2004 presidential race, but "couldn't even get out of the primary."
Time spent on MySpace could divert resources, said Leonardo Alcivar, spokesman for Republican Lynn Swann's campaign for Pennsylvania governor. But Alcivar said the campaign wouldn't want to drive voters to an opponent simply for lack of a profile, so it will probably set one up this fall when students return to college.
And although congressional candidate Vernon Robinson got a flood of donations after an old TV ad began appearing on YouTube and elsewhere, the North Carolina Republican still plans to buy television time to reach actual voters. Sites like YouTube, he said, may be better at reaching a national audience.
MySpace, which says about 80 percent of its registered users are of voting age, is considering creating a section just for politicians and social activists.
Facebook Inc., where some college students have already set up unofficial campaign profiles, plans to offer reduced advertising rates for candidates and advocacy groups this fall, likely letting campaigns create mini-profiles.
Friendster Inc., where Democrat John Kerry had a profile in 2004, is lifting its 1,000-friends cap to accommodate campaigns and other groups.
YouTube Inc. has no specific political plans, but campaigns and critics alike have been using it to circulate television ads, parodies and clips of events.
Visitors to these sites can easily send friends links to a video or profile page they like — with the campaign doing very little or no work.
"The best recommendation we can get is word of mouth, from one friend or family member to another," said Isaac Baker, spokesman for Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland, whose gubernatorial campaign has profiles on MySpace, Facebook and Friendster.
Free-wheeling nature of sites carry risks
These sites do carry some risks, however.
In South Carolina, GOP Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer's MySpace profile featured friends who had submitted scantily clad photos of themselves for display. The photos disappeared after local news outlets called attention to it.
Candidates also risk embarrassment should their friends advocate a position — bigotry or a stance on abortion, for instance — with which the candidate disagrees.
At many campaigns, volunteers got MySpace profiles or YouTube accounts started, generally unbeknown to the candidate. Some campaigns, fearing an inability to deliver a unified message and lacking staff to monitor such sites, reacted by seeking their removal.
But there can be a payoff when done right.
Jeff Mascott, managing director with the consultancy Rightclick Strategies, said that unlike campaign Web sites and blogs, both of which remain important but draw individuals already interested in politics, "you reach a wider group who may not necessarily come to you."