Election tech: Upstarts like 'tea party' have an edge

FDR won support with his radio chats, and Kennedy took to TV. Now 'tea party' groups are tapping Twitter.

By , Staff writer

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    People gather at the Capitol for a 'Remember in November' rally to express opposition to government spending, particularly bailouts and economic policies backed by President Obama and Democrats in Congress, in Washington, Sept. 12.
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Reading the "tea party" leaves from Tuesday’s contests is in full swing.

One of the big messages from the success of so many long-shot candidates to the rest of the political establishment: take a high-schooler to lunch and pay close attention to his or her texting, tweeting, and Facebooking skills. And make sure you eavesdrop on the chatty, highly-personal style of chitchat if they should happen to take a cell phone call while you’re out. Because the lesson from this current political season is: it’s not enough to just “have a facebook page.” You gotta work that Twitter or Facebook or blog for all it’s worth.

Outsiders trying to get into the political game know this instinctively, say political observers. That’s why new technology – from the days of Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering through Roosevelt’s radio chats right up to Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck’s emotional, interactive tweets – favors the challengers, the revolutionaries, and the outsiders.

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“Every generation has seen a dramatic disruption of the political process due to technological change,” says Brooklyn Law School’s Jonathan Askin, who served on the ‘08 Obama tech task force. History has shown, he says, that the disenfranchised with the least to lose and the most to gain by getting a message directly to the people are those who dig into the potential of new technologies and show what else they can do. And so, he points out, “radio promoted FDR’s agenda; TV helped elect Jack Kennedy; pamphleteers fomented the American Revolution and helped to springboard new parties.”

In each of those cases, says "Netroots" author Matt Kerbel, the establishment politicians underestimated and therefore underutilized the potential of the new technology. FDR’s opponents largely viewed radio as a wireless telegraph, good for blasting out speeches and information. “But FDR grasped the intimate nature of the medium and transformed it into a one-to-one conversation between him and the American people, something nobody before him had really done,” he says. John F. Kennedy intuitively mined the power of television to deliver his personal charisma. “He understood it was not just radio with pictures,” says Mr. Kerbel.

While President Obama has gotten high marks for his grasp of social media in ‘08, “it was really the 2004 Howard Dean campaign that showed what might be possible in a medium where the price of entry is so low. The Dean campaign did it by accident, Kerbel says. “The Internet really found Dean … not the other way around. He had such a small campaign staff and organization he wasn’t in a position to exercise top-down control over his Internet support, and that was actually the reason his Internet organization grew so effectively" that it signaled the potential of the new digital medium.

The political earthquake that really forecast what was ahead came in Massachusetts earlier this year, says Republican strategist David Johnson. “We really saw it come of age [with] Scott Brown,” he says, pointing out that the newcomer’s campaign used Twitter to activate the base. “They all had a sense of ownership in his progress; they could follow his personal story.” In contrast, he says, Attorney General Martha Coakely was seen as cold and uncaring, “just posting platitudes on Twitter.”

But the cautionary side of an instantaneous, highly personal, and decentralized mode of politicking is already evident, says Politics Daily writer Matt Lewis. Look no further than the upset in Alaska. Newcomer Joe Miller took the Republican establishment by surprise, using Twitter to get his story out. But the very next day, says Mr. Lewis, “he was put in a position of dismissing a staffer for sending out an unauthorized [tweet] on his behalf.”

Of course, there may be no better modern example of the downside of viral social networking than what happened to Howard Dean after he let out a scream – one that was captured on video and rocketed around the digisphere and, says Lewis, effectively ended his hopes. "Back in the days of more calm reflection, where a newspaper might have made a single mention of the howl, it would have passed relatively unnoticed.” Just think, he says, of the vast online archive of everyone’s tics and youthful behavior. “When these kids grow up to run for political office, all this stuff will be there just waiting to be played endlessly online."

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