WHILE digital technology has impacted elections for the past 12 years, the nonstop merry-go-round of social media and cable television coverage of the 2009-2012 presidential race underlines that we have landed in a new electoral universe.
This was the first election where national candidates regularly tweeted, Facebook reached 54 percent of the American population, and politicians used iPhone apps to identify voter patterns while door-belling neighborhoods. Modern campaigns utilize sophisticated data mining, exemplified by the Obama team’s ability to win the Electoral College by targeting key voter groups in swing states, despite a narrow victory in the popular vote. This enhanced ability to message key voter blocs and turn them out to vote is a winning strategy, but the ability to unify the country around common themes may be lost in the process. Campaign marketing has been reduced to phrases that bounce around the chamber of social media.
One can look back to presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s “Where’s the beef?” jab at fellow candidate Gary Hart or vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” zinger aimed at VP candidate Dan Quayle to recapture the flavor of analog-era campaigns.
In this atmosphere of carpet bombing via paid media, memes took on a viral life of their own, with the website Politico identifying the top Internet memes: “binders full of women;” Tumblr’s “Hey girl, it’s Paul Ryan,” featuring the candidate in buff workout poses; and defunding Big Bird. Other favorites include “Eastwooding,” and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign-ending “brain freeze” also lit up the Twitterverse.
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Memes are like cultural beacons, turning frivolous incidents and gaffes into moments where the nation’s attention becomes riveted on aspects of a candidate’s personality but telling us nothing about how they would accomplish their stated goals.
For example, presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Big Bird debate remark actually was a stab at bravery on the part of the GOP nominee, signaling that he was willing to make unpopular choices. What could have turned into an informative debate about cutting nonentitlement items from the national budget — where the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets less than 0.01 percent of federal outlays — instead prompted an Obama ad that used Big Bird to spoof Romney’s love of Wall Street tycoons. This was not the Obama campaign’s best moment.
Our old analog values encompassed in-person community gatherings, and professional journalism gatekeepers and news programs developed in the broadcast era. We used to have a Fairness Doctrine, whereby broadcasters strove to give equal time on the scarce radio or television waves to both sides of a political question.
In 2012, campaigns directly targeted voters by phone, mail and email with messages driven by sophisticated databases, which captured and tried to predict personal preferences. According to Federal Election Commission records, this was the first election where more than $1 billion was spent on behalf of each candidate, proving the foresight of pundit Will Rogers, who quipped more than 80 years ago: “Politics has become so expensive that it takes a lot of money even to be defeated.” Political scientists will be left to study whether voters in swing states, saturated by negative TV ads, responded more to targeted messages and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Did all this viral messaging, data mining and campaign spending change electoral outcomes? This year, voters returned 90 percent of incumbents back to Congress, proving that while Americans may think poorly of the institution as a whole, name recognition and almost unfettered fundraising gave incumbents a virtual lock on their seats.
Many critical issues, ranging from homelessness to privacy to environmental protection, were largely left out of this past national election. If we want elections to be both more meaningful and relevant, then we need to change our political culture by avoiding “Sesame Street” distractions and focusing on issues impacting people’s everyday lives.
Elmo will thank us.
Alex Alben lives in Seattle. He is the author of “Analog Days — How Technology Rewrote Our Future.” You can reach him at alexalben99@yahoo.-com