Campaigning in a Brave -- Digital -- New World

I never thought I'd say this, but I agree with Karl Rove.

Today, the so-called architect of George W. Bush's re-election penned an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal outlining the new norms as he perceives them in the way politics is practiced. Of course he pointed to several strategic and tactical points relating to money, message, organization, and polling. But this was not all.

The value of new technologies to campaigns goes beyond their flashy characteristics (although these may certainly be nice). In other words, winning or losing elections now depends on how these technologies are used - and if they are used at all. Speaking to the question of television, Rove says,

Television ads don't matter as much as they used to. Going on the air with the earliest and most ads doesn't count for nearly as much as it once did. Campaigning this time has been so intense, long and geared toward retail politics that people -- especially in the early states -- form opinions that are difficult to alter by early and voluminous advertising.

I think that this is simple logic. The messages that can be communicated through a medium like television are only a few, but the Internet holds the potential to disseminate virtually an unlimited amount of messages to anyone with a connection across the globe. Of course there are complications with countries that actively filter the Internet, but that is a different matter.

Knowing this, it is unlikely that people will be content with television given its limitations. As it is, it does not affect opinion in an outstanding way. In fact, we're already seeing the trend to discredit it as a form of political communication. Is it gone? Certainly not, but should it the sole focus of campaign communications departments? Probably not.

Mitt Romney's second place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Rove says, is evidence of the trend against television advertising (Romney had spent over $2 million in that state prior to the Iowa caucus).

Put simply, the Internet is just too pervasive to discount in any way. And because of its democratic qualities that allow ordinary citizens to make news in noticeable ways, campaigns may have to deal with losing a fair amount of control over their message and over events that might affect a candidate's standing.

In keeping with this tendency, Rove identifies the new standard in the campaign world:

The 20th century's closing decades saw the rise of the TV ad man as the most potent operator in presidential campaigns. The 21st century's opening decade is seeing the rise of the communications director and press spokesman as the more important figures on a campaign staff. It is the age of the Internet, cable TV, YouTube, multiple news cycles in one day, and the need for really instantaneous response.

And we have not even gotten to a discussion of Internet fundraising! That is another powerful way in which new technologies can be harnassed to surpass fundraising totals of the past.

But the main point is that despite what you may think about Rove and his utterly Machiavellian tactics, his bit on the undeniable values of new technology in politics cannot be ignored. And the fact that it cannot be ignored is something to think about in itself. In fact, pervasive politics will be the subject of a plenary panel at this year's Politics Online Conference, hosted by the Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet. Everyone should definitely check that out on March 4-5, 2008.

Even though Bush is on the way out next year, his legacy is still tied to the Boy Genius, who, despite being the pioneer of a strategy dubbed "maniacally dumb", still has a heavy ounce of wisdom to share with his political technology op-ed today. Campaigns of all stripeswould be foolish, in my view, to disregard it.

Tags: campaigns, Karl Rove, new media, television (all tags)


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