3 Things We Learned Visiting Over 6,000 Political Websites

For the last several weeks, we at Ruck.us have gone where few have dared to tread: We visited, or tried to visit, more than 6,000 websites belonging to every Democratic and Republican county party in every state to evaluate their online presence. The results? A blast from the past, and a whole lot of pixelated elephants. Here’s what we found.

1. The Republicans outnumber the Democrats online (by a little)…

The “digital edge” is the ace up the Democrats’ sleeve — as long as they control the conversation online, they have a messaging and organizing advantage that’s tough to beat. And just like with social media, that may be true at the national level, but at the local level, Democratic organizations lack the bare-bones essentials online.
Our research found that at the county level, Republican county orgs outnumber Democrats, 35.86 percent to 34.43 percent overall. That may seem little, but played over thousands and thousands of counties, that messaging gap adds up.
Within states, those differences could be much more stark: In Tennessee, Democratic counties outnumber Republicans by 19 percent, and in Wisconsin the GOP counties outnumber the Democrats by 22 percent. In hundreds and hundreds of counties across the country, local Democrats and Republicans are not on an equal playing field, but not necessarily in the way you think.

2. …but the Democrats have quality on their side.

The Republicans have the quantity, but the Democrats have the quality: Overall, county Democrats have nearly three times as many high-quality websites as the Republicans, 2.53 percent to 7.57 percent.* What’s this mean in practice? That in literally hundreds of counties, Democratic residents curious about voting locations or the next meeting are met by easily accessible, shareable information, but Republican residents will find little more than a pixelated dancing elephant from 2002. Want to donate to your local party? That feature may not have been invented the last time their website was updated.

“Wouldn’t you rather look at me than learn where to vote?”

3. Quantity and quality don’t always line up.

Performance of the counties from state to state was nothing approaching uniform — in fact, nineteen states have more of one party at the county level, and better of the other. Michigan, for instance, has nearly 5 percent more Republican county websites than Democratic ones, but over 30 percent fewer quality Republican websites compared to the Michigan Dems.

When a bad website isn’t just a bad website

More and more, people are turning to the Internet by default to learn about and engage with their government — not just young people getting their news from Twitter, but potential donors trying to learn how to contribute or first-time voters trying to fit getting informed into their busy schedules.

County parties are some of the basic units, not just of local politics, but of all politics: they are foundational organizers, and the rising star politicians of the moment often cut their teeth at the most local of local levels. The gap in online presence, not just between Democratic and Republican county parties, but between constituents’ expectations and reality, stops local engagement in its tracks. If the Democrats plan on maintaining and leveraging their digital advantage, or the Republicans plan on beating it, they both need to start at the level where it’s most sorely needed.

We defined “high-quality” as having social media integration, donation-processing, and photo and video support all wrapped up in an attractive package. That’s subjective, we know, but saying “I know it when I see it” is part of the American tradition.

Want to learn more? Check out why local politics is missing out on the social media “revolution”, how political conversations spread, or and ways to use civic tech to strengthen democracy.