Inside the Political Process: The Role of Communication

This is the second in a series of posts by politico Jim Emery, who worked in the Communications office of the Ashwin Madia campaign in 2008. With a new congressional campaign underway, Jim’s recollections and analyses are timely.

The internet takes the communication between a candidate and a voter inquisitive enough to seek information about a candidate to a more intimate level, one in which television crews and newspaper editors are absent. The public seems to be responding. A 2008 survey reported that 39% of internet users (29% of all adults) have gone online to read or watch “unfiltered” campaign material, which includes candidate debates, speeches/announcements, and position papers.

My own tasks at the Madia for Congress headquarters were ample evidence of this. Each day, the Communications Director would send me e-mails from web users who had clicked the link on our website to ask policy questions, and I would respond. The issues in question were all over the board: same-sex marriage, energy policy, the Iraq War, gun control, the financial services bailout, and so on. Questioners would give their email address, and I would reply with the candidate’s position. Usually the questioner would then reply to my response. While I would get the occasional angry reply from voters who disagreed with Mr. Madia’s position, or from voters with whom the campaign’s position was aligned but not strongly enough to satisfy them, the vast majority of emailers were grateful for our attention, and for being taken seriously, even if the candidate’s position was at odds with their own.

Giving voters this kind of attention was, in itself, the point of the exercise, and a luxury for the campaign and voters alike. The campaign received some extra assurance that policy positions were being accurately articulated to voters who were truly interested in a specific issue. Voters got answers to their questions, quickly and with little effort. A worker who came home from the second shift and wanted to know Ashwin Madia’s position on the Employee Free Choice Act could Google the candidate’s name, bring up the website, and send us as nuanced a question as she wished, right then, at 4 a.m., while it was still fresh in her mind. That’s easier and less intimidating than taking to the microphone at a candidate forum, to which she likely couldn’t make it anyway because she needed to get supper on the table and run her kid to basketball practice. This way, she knew she’d get an answer, quickly and easily.

Online interaction between campaigns and voters has increased consistently over time, every election producing a larger, more impressive statistic of internet use among voters. In the 2008 election, 46% of Americans (up from 31% in 2004) used the internet, email, or cell phone text messaging to get news about the campaign, share their views, and mobilize others. That is a big number, almost half the American public and probably closer to 80% of those who vote. There is every indication that there will be a new statistic after the 2012 election that will make this one seem relatively unimpressive.

Accessing candidate websites is far from the only manner in which voters search for information on the web. There are uncounted numbers of online news sources and political blogs on the internet, open to anyone with a connection and the inclination. Just as users of candidate websites interact with them directly, users of online news sources have a much more immediate relationship with their preferred websites than consumers of traditional media can expect. Gary Selnow calls this “up-lining,” the ability of web users to respond to the initial information source in a manner that renders their response as a part of the content. “Up-lining topples the traditional hierarchy of sender and receiver,” argues Selnow, “and in the years ahead, it is destined to have a profound effect on political communication.”

Indeed, it seems it already has, especially when the phenomenon of blogging is added to the on-line mix. A blog was initially a sort of online diary posted by a single host, but has become something quite different. Blogs, today, especially those that concern themselves with politics, are daily postings of whatever news items the host deems relevant, followed by (usually, but not necessarily) brief responses from readers that can number into the thousands per day, depending upon how well-trafficked the blog, and perhaps to some degree, how inflammatory the initial posting. Andrew Sullivan, a writer who stumbled into the form partly by accident, and in the process helped to invent it, appreciates the style of immediate feedback as a sort of hyper fact-check.

Unlike newspapers, which would eventually publish corrections in a box of printed spinach far from the original error, bloggers had to walk the walk of self-correction in the same space and in the same format as the original screwup. The form was more accountable, not less, because there is nothing more conducive to professionalism than being publicly humiliated for sloppiness. Of course, a blogger could ignore an error or simply refuse to acknowledge mistakes. But if he persisted, he would be razzed by competitors and assailed by commenters and abandoned by readers.

Due to its emphasis on immediate feedback, a blog, though in print, is not a printed medium in quite the same static way as a newspaper or a book. Sullivan continues, “The key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.”

There is no arguing that online blogs have a loyal, even a fanatical, audience. There are not many indications, however, that those dedicated online reader/responders add up to very many people. Only an estimated 4% of online users read blogs. The few vigilant blog readers are then divided up among the multitude of competing blogs, and traditional news sources, having brand names and websites of their own, retain most of the market share.

Due to the type of user that blogs draw, there seems to be little likelihood that readers are open to persuasion by either candidate. On the web, as in other walks of life, people like to have conversations, political and otherwise, with people like themselves who will validate their opinions. Web users looking for political content find blogs with a supportive audience that will confirm already held beliefs. At the end of the day, blog readers very likely hold the same political positions they did at the start, now with a greater degree of certitude.

Blogs are an irresistible venue for campaigns. If they don’t directly change the mind of voters, they affect the campaign in a more subtle way. Campaigns have a narrative, and any public policy issue has a vocabulary. It is difficult for an elected representative to vote against something called the Patriot Act because of a concern for civil liberties—one does not want to be bogged down in nitpicky issues of constitutional law at the expense of a perception of being lacking in genuine patriotism.

Much as right-wing talk radio shows do little to convince anyone who does not already subscribe to their point of view, blogs give supporters a productive way to stay engaged, lend a general atmosphere to the campaign, and most importantly, define the terms of the debate. If a campaign is a public conversation about who should govern a society, the framing of that conversation is a way to influence its outcome. Campaigns fight hard to determine the political vocabulary, and blogs are good places for supporters to make the campaign’s case, on the campaign’s terms.

Also, blogs are cheap. Blogs already exist that are friendly to the issues that make up a candidate’s platform. All that needs to be done is to develop the relationship and send supporters to the site to post comments, which doesn’t cost a nickel. The Paulsen campaign went a step farther than that, putting an established blogger on payroll. Michael Brodkorb owns and operates a blog called “Minnesota Democrats Exposed,” its obvious raison d’etre to attack Democratic officials and candidates. The Paulsen campaign wrote several thousand dollars in checks to MDE, with the expense identified in Paulsen campaign expense reports as “Public Relations Services,” The actual service rendered was to turn the blog’s attention to attacking Ashwin Madia on an almost daily basis. A few thousand dollars is not chump change, but it is a small fraction of the cost of producing and airing a television ad buy. Of course, the blog only reaches a fraction of the number of voters televisions ads do, but that’s beside the point. The Paulsen campaign was paying for the attention of an already assembled audience, an audience that would be willing and able to take direction, internalize the campaign’s talking points, and work on the campaign’s behalf to define the terms of the debate. While energizing supporters, a blog like MDE casts a wider net, as political reporters follow the daily postings as a potential source of leads for what might be legitimate mainstream news stories.

… continued …

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