The Last TV Campaign

With nothing else to talk about, political commentators have looked at the empty TV booths, the full house of Internet-based Brokaw wannabes, and declared these “the first Internet conventions.

This is reminiscent of 1952. And 1952 was a very interesting year. It was indeed the year of the first TV campaign. Eisenhower wrested his party’s nomination with a TV stunt (shaming rival Robert Taft for “stealing” delegates), and, of course, there was that “Checkers” speech. Notice that the winning party (the GOP) had the best shows.

Well, it isn’t 1952, and this time the medium is the Internet. It’s too new, the coverage is too poor, and, frankly, its political impact is too modest. We really don’t know how to use this medium to move politics, and everyone’s just experimenting. Most of what I’ve seen at places like is just low-budget TV with cool toys.

No, it’s more like 1948, which was also (coincidentally) the last time the Republicans met in Philly. H.L. Mencken did the TV commentary, and Thomas E. Dewey won the nomination. But Harry Truman wound up winning with the “old politics” of verbally abusing his opponents from the back of a railroad train.

By 2004 or 2008, we’ll have a much better idea of how the Internet plays in the political process, and my guess is it will be nothing like what we’re seeing. My guess is we’ll see a very sophisticated use of email, campaigns organized through newsgroups, and workers told what to say through digests. I see databases filtered to identify all potential vote-switchers by name, and I see concentrated efforts by parties aimed at those specific people. (I also see scandals over direct payments for votes but that’s another story.)

Despite all the hype and all the money we’ve made, the Internet is still very new, and few people know what will really work on it – especially as it relates to politics. The biggest sites are still mainly text-oriented. Very few of us have broadband. It’s still one big chain letter that does catalog shopping.

TV would like you to think that’s all it’s ever going to be but that’s just not true. The biggest progress is being made behind the screen, in areas like personalization technology, which in four years should easily be able to identify and categorize people by their expected voting patterns. It’s not what’s displayed but what’s known and what can be done with that knowledge that makes the Internet powerful. It’s not what can be shown but what can be filtered that will make the difference.

Tomorrow’s parties will be able to judge just what issues will move undecided voters and will be able to send emails to move those voters just before they vote. Campaigns will be able to organize block-by-block and reach people in their homes in ways they find compelling.

Right now it’s all fun and games, which lets TV pretend it will still be relevant to the political process a decade from now. It won’t be.

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