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Election 2.0 – Predictions on Media, Image & Campaigns

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Forget the CNN/YouTube debates (which was only watched by 2.6 million viewers anyway).  The real milestone of new media changing the face of politics has already happened.  We are deep in an historic shift in the way elections are run, driven entirely by advancements in sharing information.  But to understand where we are, we have to take a look at how we got here.

Before TV, people had to rely on newspapers and radio to find out about any candidate.  Information was slow to reach the general populace, and by the time it reached them, it had often gone through an intense editorial process that diluted it somewhat.  The classic example is the legend that very few Americans knew that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not walk due to his polio affliction.  Newspapers did not publish photos of FDR using his braces to walk, preferring instead to run photos of FDR that deliberately did not show his legs.  And of course, there was no way to see his disability over the radio.

This all changed significantly in the 1960 election between Nixon and JFK.  This was the first election with a live, televised debate.  During the first of four debates, Nixon did not wear makeup, and, due to campaigning only hours previously, appeared tired and unkempt.  Kennedy, on the other hand, appeared tanned, rested, and tidy.  After the debate, polls showed Kennedy moving from a slight deficit behind Nixon into a slight lead over him.  We didn’t know it at the time, but live broadcasting was the first step away from the media controlling the content entirely.

Television itself changed a lot over the coming years, as did the election process.  By 1972, both major parties had adopted the primary system as a way to nominate their candidates (previously, the candidates were chosen by delegates at the party convention).  More channels and networks targeted to niche audiences sprang up.  Bill Clinton recognized this latter development clearly when he made an appearance on MTV in 1992 and played his saxophone to promote his candidacy to young voters.

The next big evolution in media was, of course, the World Wide Web.  The Web gave a publishing platform to anyone with rudimentary coding skills.  The low cost of distribution has been a thorn in the side of big media, and taken content even further out of their control.  The 2004 presidential election was the first one to show the influence of blogs.  Democratic primary candidate Howard Dean raised more money than any of his opponents through his combination of Website and a grassroots blogging movement. 

However, the best example of the influence of political blogs came during the general election, and served as a perfect metaphor for the slap in the face that the Web was giving to old media.   CBS aired a segment on 60 Minutes about documents from the Texas National Guard that reflected poorly on George W. Bush’s service record.  A group of conservative bloggers began to raise questions about the documents’ authenticity.  The mainstream media subsequently got involved, and eventually CBS was forced to admit that they could not prove that the documents were authentic.

The big change now, is, of course, that in addition to blogs, people are publishing photos and videos online.  Video is well known for having a greater capacity to influence than mere text.  This was proven in the 2006 midterm elections, when the video of Virginia Senator George Allen calling his opponent “macaca,” a racial slur, appeared on YouTube and ruined his chances. 

I predict that in this election, there will be at least one major story that breaks through YouTube.  It may be a scandal of some kind, or a grass roots movement, but there will be one YouTube video that drives the gasping mainstream media into a frenzy and shifts the tectonic plates of the election.  Again, YouTube is taking control away from the media and giving it to consumers via the low cost of distribution.

I also predict that future elections will begin earlier and earlier as candidates hone their images through these multiple channels.  And candidates will need to be careful wherever they are.  In elevators, on phones, in their offices, and on the road.  Those people with their cellphones out could be photographing or videotaping something.  And that something could end up floating around the Web, gathering views, links, popularity, and, eventually, headlines.

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