Campaigning and elections in the networked century

by nkronos on February 10, 2011

Because the American electoral system has structurally evolved only slightly since its 18th century blueprint, we have contradictory vectors at work in our political system. That is not entirely a bad thing as the Founding Fathers saw virtue in setting political influence against itself, not just in the form of division of power and checks and balances in the formal structures of government, but also at the abstract level of factional interest.

Even so, one dynamic interaction we have today they could not have foreseen: modern technology’s twin effects of information-response compression and campaign-cost (and thus time spent on fund-raising) explosion. Much of the expense of the modern campaign comes from the cost of advertising, especially television advertising. Not only do candidates need to promote themselves, but they must be able to react nimbly to negative news and to any tactics from the other side that begin to draw blood.

In contrast, elections take forever to arrive, and after the people speak, the inordinately long lame-duck sessions left over from days when election results could not be immediately known make the government slow to respond even to decisive expressions of the people’s will. By the time the newly elected take over, their victory seems old news and the focus has already shifted to the dire need to raise money and position oneself for the next race.

Our term lengths and election time-tables were not set up with an eye to instant, expensive information. Nor do government processes reflect the alacrity of how the electorate can change its mind. Hence, regardless of how unpopular Obamacare becomes, it is almost impossible to think it will be repealed before 2013, if ever–although the Supreme Court may throw parts or all of it out. This slowness of process has its strengths, as California’s governing by proposition evidences little to make one nationally envious.

As for California, the governor’s race there is a prime example of how money and campaigns can evolve in the information technology age. Meg Whitman’s numbers plummeted never to recover because of two things: a negative news cycle regarding her undocumented former housekeeper and hard-hitting ads by her opponent showing Whitman echoing many of the exact words used by the unpopular incumbent. Despite spending $177 million to Brown’s $36 million on focus groups, consultants, private planes, and raising yet more money, Whitman lost by 13 points. One area where Brown kept pace: television advertising, especially in the final month, where he almost matched Whitman dollar for dollar.

As Whitman’s campaign shows, when it comes to money, politicians are politicians. Whether spending tax-payer dollars in DC or donors’ contributions, money to a politician is like urine in one’s bladder: the more it accumulates the greater the urge to piss it away.

Estimates are that Barack Obama will initiate his 2012 re-election drive with a $1 billion war chest. The need to raise such massive funding to mount a credible campaign means candidates must likewise ramp up earlier and earlier in the election cycle, which in turn feeds on itself, especially in an era where professional consultants have supplanted unpaid volunteers. (Whitman spent $1 million to lure heavy hitter Mike Murphy before he did one thing for her campaign.)

The example of Brown, however, shows that a candidate can take advantage of the right circumstances to minimize wasteful excess and achieve better results with less money. Moreover, Sarah Palin’s rapid rise and fall in the 2008 election cycle highlights that a candidate need not even have widespread name recognition and immediate credibility because of a heavy resume to dominate an election for short–even critical– periods. Hence the conflicting vector of high-tech, high-dispersion information in the 21st century: if a candidate or a story about the candidate can exploit the viral vulnerabilities of new media, it will be much more effective–especially in terms of bang for buck–than any expensive TV ad.

What does this mean when thinking about 2012?

  • The need for an expensive war chest does not go away, especially for incumbents. They need the money to play defense, as it is less likely anything viral about them will be of benefit to them. If something bad comes out about their opponents, they can thank their lucky stars and save their funds for another day, but they also must be prepared for the contingency of some unexpected media darling arriving on the scene. In the case of Palin, for example, her instant and photogenic connection with the American electorate was immediately quashed by a hostile media that for all practical purposes was a creature of the Obama campaign. An ordinary politician, especially an incumbent, is much less likely to have the press so much in thrall.
  • The viral factor undermines the conventional assumption promoted especially by dinosaur media that the early start is, in fact, necessary. Foregoing the early campaign means a candidate will not have the big bank account–which will itself be a media story and indicate to mainstream eyes a quixotic campaign. Nevertheless, with the right hook (and a scrupulously self-vetted background) , the right candidate can wait until his or her opponents have bled themselves dry, other candidates have become tired and sickening to voters, and then spring into the fray.

This won’t work for someone like Rudolph Giuliani, who appeared to try a late-entry strategy in the 2008 GOP primaries, as he was not a surprise candidate at all. Nor did it work for Fred Thompson because he was unable to ignite any viral excitement and allowed the media to portray him as a lazy, stodgy joke. But it could very well work for a Palin-type other than Palin herself–who stands to gain littleĀ  by a diffident strategy except to reinforce the notion of her unseriousness.

Stories about Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney as current front-runners for the GOP nod, therefore, are irrelevant. In 2007 McCain had not yet fallen and risen again, and Hillary Clinton was the presumptive Democratic nominee. Nor do Obama’s current poll numbers indicate how strong an opponent he will make–although the recovery of optimism about the economy, especially among the affluent, may be a more forward-leading sign.

If Obama’s massive deficits succeed in goosing the economy so that voters are confident–even if mistakenly so–that the worst is behind us on election day, it will little matter who the Republicans nominate. Otherwise, if the White House looks up for grabs, I would not be at all surprised to see a GOP challenger who no one is much talking about right now squaring off against him. Or even a credible and charismatic third-party candidate, not self-financed like Ross Perot, but arising from voter frustration that neither existing party seems capable of addressing our fiscal train wreck.

As for the senate, GOP control will likely come down to the fates of Joe Manchin, Bill and Ben Nelson, Jon Tester, and the Democratic nominee to replace Jim Webb–and whether the GOP can field strong challengers. In Virginia, at least, the GOP already represents with a formidable candidate in George Allen.

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