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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2004 / 18 Teves, 5764

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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The new shoe-leather politics

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |
To understand how this presidential campaign is sharply different from any in the past 30 years, consider two metrics (the political science word for numbers). Howard Dean's campaign has an E-mail list of nearly 600,000 addresses. George W. Bush's campaign has an E-mail list of 6 million addresses. For the past 30 years, the staples of presidential campaigning have been: Raise money from lots of rich people, and spend most of it on television advertising. Now there's a new staple: personal contact.


Most of the attention so far has been on Dean's brilliant campaign. A year ago this month, Dean was flying to events alone because his campaign could not afford a plane ticket for a staffer. But in 2003, he raised $40 million from 280,000 contributors. A key to this success was the Internet and E-mail. Peace candidates in the past had an easy time finding supporters in university towns and high-income professional neighborhoods but had a hard time finding them anywhere else. Using meetup.com and MoveOn.org, the Dean campaign located Iraq war opponents and Bush haters in every part of the country. It encouraged these supporters to find others and bring them into highly cohesive electronically connected communities. The campaign has found Dean supporters in every precinct in Iowa and is in constant touch with them in order to turn them out for the caucuses January 19. It has also built an apparently solid core of around 30 percent of the Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire.


If Dean wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he won't be guaranteed the nomination; opposition could coalesce around another candidate who emerges strong after the February 3 contests. But he will be hard to stop.


The Bush campaign's new-world organizational efforts have attracted much less attention than Dean's, since there is no primary contest. Of the impressive $130 million he has raised from 494,000 contributors, only $3 million came from the Internet. But the campaign has trained 5,500 organizers in target states (the list should be obvious to anyone scanning the 2000 returns) and is recruiting, in person and over the Internet, Bush team leaders who commit to assigned tasks in their precincts. Like the Dean campaign, the Bush campaign follows up to see whether these volunteers have met their metrics.

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Bush strategist Karl Rove and campaign manager Ken Mehlman believe that relatively few voters are genuinely undecided and that the campaign's major task is to identify, register, and turn out Bush supporters. And they believe that paid media--television advertising--and direct mail are likely to be less important than the new-old medium of personal contact. Despite Dean's early Internet campaigning, a new Washington Post poll shows Bush leading Dean by the same large margin among Internet users as among all voters.


Many gatekeepers. In the 1980s, I believed that you could cover a presidential election from five rooms--the morning meetings of the two campaigns, where the day's message was set, and the afternoon meetings of the three networks, where executives decided what part of that message would make the evening news. In 1988, I almost got the Bush and Dukakis campaigns to consider letting me do it, though eventually they turned me down. But today you couldn't cover the 2004 fall campaign from 100 rooms. Too much of it will be going on over back fences and on the Internet.


In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam identified low voter turnout and political participation as just one symptom of declining social connectedness in American life. In his second edition, Putnam may want to revisit that statement. In the 1980s, the overwhelming majority of voters were passive couch potatoes, whom campaign managers sought to appeal to with TV ads. Today, when voters can avoid ads by clicking the remote or fast-forwarding on TiVo, many more Americans are going to be actively involved in or personally contacted by campaigns, as voters were a century ago when political machines staged mass rallies and turnout drives. Information-age technology, far from depersonalizing politics, seems to be producing more active personal involvement than we have seen in years.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2004, Michael Barone