New Media Is Driving Politics Into The Unknown Zone

Originally posted on and written by Joe Rothstein

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

Technology is changing the way we work, shop, bank, exercise and most other areas of life.; Why would we expect political campaigns to be immune?  

It’s been 30 years since Robert Redford played the role of Bill McKay in “The Candidate,” which accurately represented what was then a whole new political form:

Polling for message+Poll-Driven TV spots+saturation TV buys+clever press manipulation.  That’s the way statewide campaigns and many congressional and municipal races have been run ever since.

But now we are seeing a new formula at work and having success: clever use of inexpensive database programs to store information about voters+distribution of targeted messages by email, Internet, phones and mail+Internet-based campaigns to raise money and recruit volunteers.

TV isn’t going away.  But with a prime time audience of 40%, down from the 90% in Bill McKay’s day, the impact and reach isn’t what it used to be. 

So what’s changing?  The short answer is “everything.”

After the Dean campaign, anyone who doubts the power of the Internet and email for  one-on-one fund-raising and recruiting is too dangerously out of it to be trusted with public office.  But that’s just the beginning of change. 

Campaign headquarters are being set up on-line, communicating with staff and volunteers 24/7 in ways not possible when people have to show up at the on-site headquarters. 

Field work and traditional voter ID already is being conducted with Palm Pilots beaming information back to list managers from volunteers as they go door to door. 

Well-organized viral communications is already competing with the managed story, written by the reporter, processed through an editor and published once.  A lot of news that isn’t fit to print is rocketing through cyberspace.   

Inexpensive and easily-used database programs are bringing the grassroots back into the campaign.  Organizing contacts and targeting messages has never been easier or more cost effective.

And what about TV?  Well, with a $5000 digital video camera I can produce a very inexpensive spot about vocational education and send it to the few hundred people on my vocational education list.  Then I can produce another inexpensive spot about teachers’ pay and send it to all those on my teachers’ list.   Forget having one “education spot.”  There will be as many educational spots as there are constituencies of educational interest.  Targeting video, audio and text messages will soon be an integral part of every campaign—from president to city council. 

For hardly the cost of a single broadcast TV buy, I can produce hundreds of TV spots featuring my candidate or influential surrogates, and email each to exactly those voters who might be persuaded by that message.  And they can click “reply” and respond to me.  We’re not quite there yet, but we will be soon.  It’s potent stuff. 

This is a lot more complicated world for people in politics than poll+TV spots+saturation buy.  But there’s no stopping it.   

Broadcast TV will still be a big part of campaign budgets where it’s appropriate.  So will direct mail and targeted phone calls.  And there will be no substitute for the savvy press secretary.  Polling will continue to underpin messages, but it will be a new form of polling, no longer designed just to create 30 second TV spots, but polling with breadth to capture multiple interest group messages. 

Five to 10 years we will not recognize the campaign that Bill McKay ran.  And who knows, maybe that will be good for the election process and the government it creates.

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