Garrett Graff describes 'The First Campaign' to go truly digital

How can the 2008 presidential candidates best speak to a tech-savvy, global generation?

In 1948, embattled incumbent Harry S Truman embarked on a cross-country, whistlestop tour, in a last ditch effort to salvage his stake in the presidential election. The situation was dire. Infighting had decimated the Democratic Party's base, shattering it into a collection of small tent movements; Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond threatened from one direction, and Republican Thomas Dewey from the other. Voters, Truman reasoned, would have to be appealed to directly – palm to palm, and face to face.

As Garrett Graff writes in The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, Truman, who eventually covered thousands of miles by train, was the last winning candidate to reach – in person – such a wide swath of the electorate. By 52, television had arrived in American homes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower was using "I Like Ike" cartoon shorts and canned "conversations" to bridge the technological divide.

Strategists began to think in terms of infotainment: long policy speeches and public discourse were out, and the age of the horse race was ushered in.

Graff, an editor at Washingtonian magazine, is fascinated by the revolution that took root after 48, mostly because of its similarity to the 2008 election. Like Eisenhower – and later, Nixon and Kennedy – the Democratic and Republican nominees will battle on a new frontier, one rife with opportunity.

"[Changes] wrought by the Web, the BlackBerry, the camera phone, and the like – changes that give ordinary people access to more information (and more kinds of information) than ever before in history – are being brought into politics," Graff argues. "This new technology is a defining feature in the generation of American citizens just now coming of age, a generation that all the candidates are desperate to reach and persuade and one that has joined the voting population only since the 2000 election."

Yet evidence abounds that the candidates have not yet mastered the subtleties of digital campaigning. Consider the case of George Allen, the would-be Republican candidate, who was filmed making racially disparaging remarks at a stop in Southwest Virginia last year. A clip was posted to YouTube, where it became a hit; Allen's chances at the nomination were ground into dust.

And Allen isn't unique, Graff explains, adding that "clearly we cannot afford for our candidates to run the last campaign all over again. Which candidate will have the confidence ... to run the first campaign of the new age?"

Voice of a savvier generation?

Born in 1981, Graff rose to prominence as webmaster for Howard Dean's 04 presidential bid. Dean imploded in the primaries, but his rise is often attributed to a sprawling Internet presence and an ability to generate cash online. Graff went on to become the founding editor of the blog and was the first blogger given credentials to cover the White House. In "The First Campaign," Graff looks back at the historical milestones that paved the way for Dean's rise and offers a comprehensive plan – involving Web 2.0, social networking, and online video – that will drive the next.

But he's also interested in the postelection landscape, and the second half of "The First Campaign" is structured like a position paper: education, responsible healthcare, and environmental stewardship are all touchstones. In a sweeping chapter titled "Powering a Twenty-first-Century Economy," Graff delves into ecoliving and clean energy, and states plainly that, "inaction will bring about the end of civilization."

None of this, of course, will be news to anyone who follows politics. The platforms Graff regurgitates are largely part and parcel of the Democratic agenda, and even at its most discursive, "The First Campaign" is toeing the party line.

Graff sees himself as a true progressive – and a proud Democrat – and his prose is both fiery and incredulous. (Unsurprisingly, he writes that the Democrats will have the best chance of enacting lasting environmental, educational, and technological reform.)

Occasionally, this enthusiasm runs roughshod over Graff's tone. For instance, consider this particularly knotty passage on benefits for union workers: "Whereas in 1950 only 10 percent of union contracts provided for pensions and 30 percent included social insurance like health coverage, five years later, 45 percent provided pensions and 70 percent covered life, accident, and health insurance."

Still, for the most part, "The First Campaign" is a graceful book, and an important one. It's a success born of perspective: Graff gets enough distance to sketch the landscape – with all its moving parts – while remaining firmly embroiled in the fight.

The campaign as a time to 'pull people in'

"[My] generation – the largest generation since the baby boomers," Graff writes, "is more technologically savvy and more civic minded than the one before it." The choice, he adds, is clear. The 08 candidates must commit to capturing this audience – electronic face to electronic face, if not palm to palm – if they hope to win office.

"The internet," Graff concludes, "at its most fundamental level, is about opening up a conversation that has been dominated by elites for decades." It's a chance to "pull people in, and get them involved in the political process."

Truman would have approved.

Matthew Shaer is a Monitor editor.

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