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Presidential Hopefuls Browsing for Voters Online

Political analysts here watched as U.S. President Barack Obama amassed $6.5 million in online donations, an e-mail list 13 million deep and 8.5 million Web site hits per month during last year’s presidential primary and election, and some wondered if a similar internet campaign could be waged in Costa Rica.

With the 2010 presidential election on the horizon, candidates have already tapped into the online community with groups on the social networking site Facebook, candidate Web sites, blogs and accounts with the micro-blogging service, Twitter.

And, while each candidate has launched a virtual campaign, none is relying solely on electronic voters to carry them toward a win.

“I don’t think the election could be won or lost based on the Internet alone, but it’s a useful tool,” said José Daniel Clarke, technology advisor to Citizen Action Party (PAC) presidential candidate Epsy Campbell. “The Internet is another way of making contact with voters and keeping in touch.”

Like many of his counterparts working on other presidential campaigns, Clarke said the Internet doesn’t have the user coverage here to mimic Obama’s campaign.

“People use the Internet, but maybe they don’t use it as much as they could or they don’t have the culture of looking for information online,” he said. “But you could hardly win an election without (the Internet).”

According to the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union, only 34 percent of Costa Ricans are connected to the Internet, compared to 72 percent in the United States.

Costa Rica is the 14th most-connected country in the Americas, bested by Caribbean islands such as Bermuda, Barbados and Jamaica.

Brazil has a slight ly higher connectivity rate at 35.2 percent, but Costa Rica has more users than its Central American neighbors, Panama (22.3 percent), El Salvador (11.1 percent) and Nicaragua (3 percent).

“There are certainly challenges to launching online campaigns such as (access),” said Ana Iparraguirre, director of the Latin American Office for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a strategic consulting firm that works with political campaigns. “There is only a limited population that has access to the Internet. But in many countries, resources are also challenged … in terms of having well-trained people who can conduct these campaigns.”

What made Obama’s online strategy so successful was his ability to make it a central part of his campaign, Iparraguirre said. In Latin America, Internet use is a complementary tool, not the focal point.

All of Obama’s strategies were intertwined with the Internet, whether it was self-organized call centers in neighborhoods across the country, targeted web advertisements based on a user profiles or e-mails that stimulated the voter base rather than annoyed them.

Latin America may not be ready to make the Internet a core of a campaign, but, said Iparraguirre, “The Internet is going to become more and more an integral part of elections here.”

Costa Rica’s line-up of presidential candidates are signing onto dozens of social networking sites and online forums, hoping to exhaust all online avenues to connect with potential voters.

Current mayor of San José and National Liberation Party (PLN) presidential candidate Johnny Araya has infiltrated more than 10 social networking sites, established an online forum and regularly posts announcements to his blog, using the Internet as a tool to interact with voters by soliciting feedback, discussing solutions and learning from voters.

“At this point, the idea is to take full advantage of the Web,” said Francisco Robert, a project manager for Araya.

And why not? Iparraguirre asked. The Internet is one of the most cost-effective tools to connect with large groups of people, she said.

For the Araya campaign, the beauty of the Internet is that it is not necessarily limited to the people who have computers. Anyone can visit an Internet café and have a virtual conversation with Araya, Robert said.

“We are giving the Internet importance because it does not differentiate between social classes,” he said. “Everyone has the opportunity to access the Internet and express themselves.”

Yet, targeting swing voters and connecting with them makes online campaigning a trial. “Avenues for Internet are complicated,” said Federico Cruz, a media consultant with the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC.) “It’s a reality that young people get most of their news on the Internet, but the challenge is how best to reach them.”

Because individuals can choose which Web sites to visit or what chat rooms to join, the challenge becomes how best to lure Internet users into one Web site over another. Cruz said the party is exploring ways to reach out to a diverse Internet population.

“What we are trying to do is make news that is practical and interactive,” he said.

Though presidential candidate Fernando Berrocal, who most recently served as public security minister until last April, has established a strong Web presence, he’s focusing his efforts on meeting voters face-to-face.

Launching a series of tours through the villages of Costa Rica, he’s using a combination of knocking on doors and broadcasting through a loud speaker fastened to the hood of a car.

“This is a campaign directly with the people,” said Jose Manuel Gutiérrez. “Not everyone has Internet, and many people don’t have a computer, so virtual outreach is limited.”

But that personal touch is also important here, Gutiérrez said. “It’s necessary in Costa Rica to have a direct contact with the voters.”



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