Technology and Political Campaigns (Updated) Posted by: Billy Hollis
on Monday, January 22, 2007
Jon Henke's new job is a clear example of the growing importance of Internet technologies in political campaigns. Some folks, intoxicated by Howard Dean's early success, thought the 2004 presidential campaign would be dominated by the Internet. While blogs and other Internet factors such as fund-raising certainly played a part, the critical mass wasn't quite there to really change the direction of a political campaign. This time, though, Internet strategy might be enough to make or break particular candidates.
I think it's a real possibility that at least one presidential candidate gets sunk by a poor relationship with the blogosphere in this cycle. I'd say it's more likely for a GOP candidate than a Democratic one, because of the general cluelessness of GOP candidates about technology and about the psychology of bloggers. This was aptly demonstrated by Roy Blunt last year.
In essence, I don't anyone can win based primarily on the blogosphere, but someone could lose by handling the "new media" badly.
One reason that looks likely to me is the natural match between political campaigns and the blogosphere. Internet based technologies offer a fast, almost instananeous, news cycle. When misleading or damaging news gets out there, no faster way exists to correct it than via new media. The Internet also offers a way for candidates to distribute information on their positions without filtering from a supposedly neutral journalist.
While we're not ready for this yet, I could foresee an innovative campaign in the future that refused to explain issues directly to reporters at all. A candidate could publish all information about their positions on issues on the web, and then take questions on those issues from all comers. That process would be moderated, of course, but there's no reason reporters would have any greater standing to ask questions or request clarifications than anyone else.
Once a candidate commits to such a full exposition of issue positions on the Internet, he or she could point all reporters at those positions and stop playing the game the way reporters like to play it. After all, reporters spend most of their copy or air time now talking about "horse race" aspects of the campaign instead of issues anyway.
I'd like to think such a strategy might also help defuse some of the current "gotcha" reporting around gaffes made by candidates. If there is an authoritative place for the candidate's positions, and the gaffe was around something that had already been put in place on the candidate's site, then it would be easier for a candidate to say "Look, I just said it wrong that day. I've always said on my web site that what I think about that issue is...." That technique would not always work, but I think it would in some cases.
Curmedgeon that I am, I would expect reporters to keep on trying to inflate gaffes into controversies, and to keep on talking "horse race" instead of drilling down on issues. But I hope the evolution of campaigns into more of a national conversation not mediated by newspapers and TV stations makes the failings of reporters less corrosive to the overall process.
Of course, if that gets replaced by "blog swarms" that inflate some minor gaffe or incorrect "fact" into prominence, that's no improvement. But the capacity of the blogosphere to refute incorrect information is certainly better than that of the old media, and there's considerably more diversity in the blogosphere than in the mainstream media.
I'm interested in what our readers think will be the effects of technology on political campaigns. Will relationships with the blogosphere make that big a difference in 2008? Will evolving Internet-based campaign strategies lessen the importance of mainstream media, and if so, how long will that take?
***Update Tuesday, 23 Jan, 5:24CST Some good comments, including this from Harun:
I would suggest considering how politicians will use blogs/YouTube as an offensive, negative weapon rather than "getting their message across" platform since negative advertising is so popular.
Edwards primping his hair is a classic example.
Yes, we might as well get ready for this. Political operatives have always pushed the limits on dirty tricks, and given some of the convenience and anonymous nature of the Internet, they have plenty of new techniques to try.
On the videos, I think it's going to be hard to draw the line between "this shows the guy's true character", and "this is irrelevant and a low blow". I'm not even sure which of those describes the Edwards video. Does primping indicate something about a man's character?
I've been thinking for a few years that technology might be pushing national campaigns towards a completely structured approach that limits travel and only has completely staged events in a few key locations. I'm not sure that visits to various states really have as much effect as political consultants think, and there are clear opportunity costs when a candidate has to spend a lot of money and time travelling. If we add in the potential cost of a clandestine video of the candidate picking his nose on YouTube, then maybe it just no longer makes sense to do that kind of campaigning.
Yes, I did like it. But I cite it because it’s such a great indicator of the difference between the pap that comes out of mainstream media and the much more interesting writing that’s available in the blogosphere.
I think that speaking directly to bloggers more often would be a huge benefit for politicians who want to avoid media filters. I also think it would do those same figures a great bit of good to spread themselves out across the blogosphere rather than focusing on just the largest blogs. They don’t want to create a gatekeeper mentality in the new media either. Since traffic can follow the topic (through links) distributing the message across the blogosphere can keep bloggers honest as well.
Then of course the campaign or staff can e-mail other influential blogs promoting the effort. This can broaden the attachment bloggers have to the candidate (not that I would fall for such blatant incentives;^) but such things do drive the human ego) and lessen the desire of bloggers to gratuitously distort what they said. Those who believe they will get such attention from candidates will have to think about it. Glenn Reynolds is unfair! Heck, I can talk to Coyote Blog and give the guy an avalanche of traffic. No need to say anything, just do it. Making bloggers aware they don’t get my attention just because they are big, without lashing out or alienating the big dogs makes sense because that is the way the new media works. If I were a new media coordinator I would think in just such a pragmatic way about the dynamics of the blog world. Not pretty, but making sausage rarely is.
My guess is politicians don’t get that and will have a hard time getting out of the "I have to give most of my attention to the LA Times, NY Times and the WAPO because that is where the audience is" mindset. With a diligent staff that gatekeeper function is easy to get around online, but as you said, most politicians still don’t get it and still think in terms of major media gatekeepers. That of course will leave a huge opportunity for a middle of the pack candidate to build up attention in a variety of free new media outlets paralell to their major media advertising efforts and enlist small and large bloggers to bring them some buzz.
Two things of note: politicians and their campaigns talk about "grass roots" movements all the time; this would be the soil that gives way to at least an aspect of grass roots campaigning. Secondly, there are some interesting implications here having to do with advertising and contributions, particularly as pertains to expected (by me and probably others that are fans of QandO) "internet campaign reform".
While we’re not ready for this yet, I could foresee an innovative campaign in the future that refused to explain issues directly to reporters at all.
I can certainly report, first hand, that the game is definitely changing in the "new media". Where previously I had to dig for info and sources, I now get unsolicited emails from corporate and political sources with polls, statements, links to stories, etc.
Obviously all are trying to influence the production of blog posts, and I’m very aware of that, but it demonstrates that they are beginning to really understand how it works out here and it also points to their growing awareness of the blogosphere’s importance.
Just this morning I’ve gotten an unsolicited BBC Poll, a little opposition research on American Somoa and the tuna industry, and the results of another poll about American opinion from the corporate communications director of one of those corporations commissioning the poll (entitled "For your Blog").
That’s not an unusual morning. So the "new media" is certainly starting to generate some attention. And if you include Hillary Clinton’s web chats, it is becoming a very intergral and important part of the political campaign process.
Should be quite a ride, for the next couple of years anyway.
I also think it would do those same figures a great bit of good to spread themselves out across the blogosphere rather than focusing on just the largest blogs.
That’s a great point, and as you pointed out, it will require some unorthodox thought on the candidates’ part.
With some of the aggregation capability of entities such as Pajama’s Media, it ought to be quite practical to engage directly with mid-level bloggers and still get the message noticed on a larger scale. It’s certainly an experiment worth trying, especially for a candidate whose chances are not looking very good.
I thought of a perfect example of a negative attack that probably will come out on the blogs in 2007.
Barrack Obama is a smoker - trying to quit and all, but a smoker nontheless. If I were Hillary Clinton’s staff I would try to get a photo of him smoking (hopefully in the act of lighting up.) This would go on pro-Hillary blogs and end up in the MSM that way (possibly.)
I bet Obama is very, very careful when he smokes though. (or am I just being silly?)
I’d think New Media is more like Special Forces on an independent mission...
Candidates, political operatives, etc. might be able to suggest a particular path, but if it doesn’t fit the "mission profile" of a particular blogger, they aren’t going to be responsive.
Personally, I’ll refuse to post personal attacks that have no bearing on my decision making about a particular candidate. For instance, I don’t care about Guiliani’s divorces, those are a private matter, unless he used public funds. I don’t care about Obama’s past drug use, only that he’s not a drug addict now. Other bloggers will have different views on the relevance of these issues.
Clearly, the online person is going to be of a younger and likely smarter demographic, then the average viewer of the big three, or is that big four?
I think you’re over stating the online demographic and the effects it might have.
New Media is just that, a new way to communicate. Anyone who ignores it is cutting off a certain percentage of the total population who don’t trust the "Old Media."
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