The New “E-Lectorate”

In this election year, I wonder if Americans have a real sense of the costs involved in waging a campaign for a national office election. According to this week’s estimates, presidential candidates alone have raised a whopping $300 million plus, making this year’s bid for the White House the most expensive in history. Over the next 20-plus weeks, election committees and special interest groups will spend millions, nationally and locally, to reinforce to the American public the virtues of electing one candidate or another to a specific office, be it president, senator, representative, governor, or councilperson.

Having lived through the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and “W” administrations, I’ve witnessed some great political battles in a war of messages and campaign strategies. I’m fascinated with our government’s inner workings and the political process (I hold a degree in political science). I never tire of reviewing the strategies deployed by the candidates, particularly in terms of their media use to trumpet their beliefs and sell us on the righteousness of their platforms.

Though we’d all love to believe officials are elected due to an objective analysis of a candidate’s merits, suitability to task, and track record, we understand winning an election is more than that. Some of the best marketing and promotional minds are responsible for spending all that “chicken dinner raised cash” on developing messaging platforms and media buys that more aggressively sell their candidates to the American public.

Howard Dean’s and Senator John McCain’s early successes in tapping the Internet raised awareness of the power of the new “e-lectorate.” Reports are still coming in from both camps that Internet fundraising activity is nothing short of remarkable. Millions of dollars have been raised in a matter of weeks for national campaigns. Strategists are scrambling to rewrite strategies to include the Internet and email communications as integral components of their marketing tool kits.

As the American public continues to move online, political strategists and candidates, like product marketers, must read and respond to the tealeaves. Though TV, radio, and direct mail aren’t going the way of the dinosaur, clearly the voting population has dramatically changed its media consumption patterns since the last election.

The January 2004 Pew Internet & American Life Report asked adults where they learn about the presidential campaign. In 2000, 25 percent of Republicans surveyed said the Internet; in 2004 that figure jumped to 30 percent. Democrats saw an even larger increase: from 24 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2004. Independents made a dramatic leap: 25 percent in 2000 to over 39 percent in 2004, a 14 point change. Black and Hispanic voter groups saw significant growth in Internet interest for presidential information, growing 7 and 11 points, respectively, since the last presidential election. That’s compelling data for those seeking office.

The Internet’s power as an information tool cannot be denied. A February 2004 study by Harris Interactive asked adults the degree to which they rely on the Internet for information about politics, political issues, and elections. The encouraging results:

How much do you rely on the Internet for information about politics, political issues, and elections?
Voters’ Ages A Lot/Some (%)
18-24 42
25-29 52
30-39 47
40-49 44
50-64 42
65+ 63
Total 45
Source: Harris Interactive

The data clearly demonstrates a generational shift in the way the American public forms opinions about issues affecting the voting process.

There’s much work to be done to build a dialogue with voters in this medium. Most of what I’ve seen from all candidates is an extension of the direct marketing mentality: It’s cheap, so do a lot of it. Candidates seem to have little or no problem with spamming, whether on TV or in direct mail. If you’re like me, your postal mailbox is jammed with all sorts of direct mail experiments.

Like the rest of the marketing community, elected officials, candidates, and their staffs should think more about how to spend all their funds. In the private sector, particularly after the bloodletting our economy endured over the past several years, there’s a new level of fiscal accountability. Are we spending advertising and marketing dollars in the most appropriate way? What’s the return on this investment? The same level of responsibility should exist in political circles.

Future elections will be won or lost by a new class of political strategists and media professionals who understand the changing dynamic of American voters and their information needs. It’s time to adopt a strategy that’s serious about communicating with voters through the channel they use most. Voters don’t watch as much TV or listen to as much radio as before. Most will trash all that direct mail without opening it. America’s level of support for candidates mirrors our relationships with other consumer brands: If the message is relevant, they’ll open it. If not, you probably just lost their vote.

The same email issues that affect product marketing hold true for political communications: blacklists, deliverability, open and click-through rates, messaging, and relevance. In my casual review, most campaign people don’t get it and don’t think it will hurt them. Such thinking will lead to an election night concession speech.

Till next time,

Al D.

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