Although the video revolution is never mentioned at candidate forums in the 51st Congressional District race, Democrat Byron Georgiou and Republican Ray Saatjian are counting on it to help catapult them to their respective parties' nominations in next month's primary.
Bringing a high-tech flair to their campaigns, Georgiou and Saatjian have distributed tens of thousands of videocassettes--essentially extended ads that tell their personal and political stories--to voters in an attempt to separate themselves from the crowded 17-candidate pack in the northwestern San Diego district.
One of the hottest new gimmicks in political campaigns, the 6- to 10-minute tapes have been used sporadically in state and federal elections around the country since the late 1980s.
But the 51st-District race apparently is the first major San Diego contest in which the videos have surfaced, and the outcome on June 2 could well determine whether they remain a political novelty or become a strategic fixture in future campaigns here.
Both Saatjian and Georgiou have received largely positive responses to the tapes, which they characterize as a substantive alternative to typical 30-second television or radio ads.
However, the tactic is still new enough to be a calculated gamble, and both candidates concede that they are uncertain whether it will translate into more votes or be dismissed by skeptical voters as simply the newest, slickest version of campaign imagery.
"After the election, we're either going to be considered brilliant or the biggest dolts in San Diego politics," said Saatjian consultant Carolyn Fish.
Recognizing that the cluttered 51st District field would likely be a blur in most voters' minds, Georgiou and Saatjian opted to produce the videos as a means of distinguishing themselves on a ballot overflowing with other local, state and national contests.
"We realized we had to do something novel to get our message to voters," said Georgiou, one of five candidates on the Democratic primary ballot. "With as crowded as the airwaves and mailboxes will be with ads and mailers, it's inconceivable that people will pay much attention to those traditional methods."
Similarly, Saatjian, who faced even more formidable visibility problems in the 10-candidate Republican field, said he chose to make his 6 1/2-minute video in an effort to "convince voters who are being deluged . . . to stop and take a look at Ray." Two minor-party candidates uncontested in their respective primaries also appear on the ballot.
"To many voters, this race is just a sea of names," Saatjian said. "It's very easy for a candidate to get lost in the crowd. But I think the videotape takes us out of the pack."
The increasing though still infrequent use of videotapes in political campaigns--seen this year in Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton's presidential race--owes as much to technological advances in the video industry as it does to strategic considerations.
While fewer than than 5% of American homes were equipped with videocassette recorders a decade ago, that figure now is approaching 80%--and is even higher in the households of people who are likely to vote, according to industry estimates.
Over the same period, advances in high-speed dubbing technology not only lowered the cost of producing the tapes to, in most cases, less than $2 per cassette, but also made it feasible to generate tens of thousands of copies daily.
For about $50,000, Georgiou's campaign produced and purchased 20,000 10-minute videotapes, which are left on registered Democrats' doorsteps for viewing at their convenience. Several days later, Georgiou's volunteers and some paid workers return to pick up the tapes so they can be delivered to other homes.
Based on a return rate of about 40%, Georgiou believes that the 20,000 tapes will be sufficient to reach about 45,000 Democratic households.
Saatjian also produced 20,000 videos for about $1.40 per cassette, not counting production costs--slightly less than Georgiou's $1.46 per tape expense. However, the Saatjian campaign mails its tapes to Republican voters, viewing Georgiou's method of dropping them off and later attempting to retrieve and "recycle" them as being too time-consuming and costly.
Both videos follow a similar format, blending the candidates' biographies and positions on key issues with effusive on-screen testimonials from supporters.
Accompanied by dramatic, patriotic background music, Georgiou's tape starts with a script that slowly scrolls across the screen, beginning with the words: "Our political system is a mess."
What follows is a gushing explanation of how Georgiou--billed as "A Voice for Change"--proposes to remedy those political ills and address problems ranging from the economy and the environment to health care and women's rights.
Photos from his youth are interspersed with shots depicting Georgiou the man and the candidate: thoughtfully contemplating the ocean, talking to women on the street and farm workers in the fields, working in his law office.
Some of his high-profile legal victories and his service as legal affairs adviser to former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. also are highlighted--though the controversial Brown is never mentioned by name.
Outlining his priorities, Georgiou pledges to "make government work again (by) fighting for decent jobs, a health care system that delivers for all who need it, a woman's right to make her most basic and personal decisions about her own body, an environment that's safe for our children."
"I know this is a different way to run for Congress, but it's time for some new ideas," Georgiou concludes, staring earnestly at the camera.
Similarly, Saatjian hopes that voters will view his tape as a "serious, substantive message that tells more about me than they could get in a 15-second sound bite."
One of the focal points of Saatjian's video is his 10-point congressional reform plan, which includes calls for term limits, a cut in congressional pay, elimination of congressional perks, limits on certain political contributions and reform of the seniority system. Details of the plan also are printed on the colorful jacket containing Saatjian's video.
Featuring an upbeat jingle built around his "Say Ray" slogan, Saatjian's tape, which is being sent primarily to undecided likely GOP voters, also includes lavish praise for the candidate from former Gov. George Deukmejian, who appointed Saatjian to the Del Mar Fair Board. Saatjian himself ticks off his stand on myriad issues, proposing a crackdown on illegal aliens, urging that the death penalty be extended to major drug traffickers and saying that public service "should not be seen as lifetime employment."
Although both candidates' videos were developed as an alternative to TV ads, Saatjian's tape will serve a double purpose, because its final 30 seconds also will be used on television during the closing weeks of the race.
A major advantage of the videos is that they can be more carefully targeted to specific voters than normal broadcast ads, which generally reach far more people who live outside a political district--and therefore cannot vote for the candidate in the ad--than within it.
Even so, skeptics question whether people who find 30-second political ads unappealing will bother to watch an eight-minute video, while others debate whether the tapes improve candidate-to-voter dialogue--or make it more remote.
Despite some lingering doubts, many political consultants and candidates themselves answer both questions positively.
Tom Edmonds, president of Washington-based Political Video Duplicators, one of the industry's pioneers, contends that his firm's surveys have shown that about 80% of the people who receive the videos take the time to watch them.
"People are receptive because they're buying rather than being sold," Edmonds said. "You decide to stick in the video, you choose the time and place and setting, and say, 'OK, give me your best shot.' That's different than watching your favorite basketball game and getting hit with a commercial in the middle of it. You don't zap a tape you put in the machine yourself."
UC San Diego political science professor Sam Popkin, meanwhile, rejects arguments that the videos damage rather than enhance political communication by creating a new buffer between candidates and voters.
"Given that we can't go back to the days of door-to-door campaigns, this is a very positive step," Popkin said. "We should be encouraged by anything that allows people, at a time of their choice, to think seriously about any political office."
Although 30-second TV ads have long been criticized as superficial, candidates have found that the longer videos can sometimes pose exactly the opposite problem.
"When you put that much information out on the table, you're bound to run into people who don't agree with you," noted Georgiou consultant Tom Shepard. That was the case with Georgiou's strong advocacy of abortion rights on his tape, a position that offended seniors at a Catholic Church-run retirement community where the tapes were delivered.
"Out of 60 people, we got 60 'noes,' " Shepard said.
Most of Georgiou's and Saatjian's opponents, perhaps motivated more by hope than by detached analysis, have scoffed at the videos, giving them, at best, grudging respect.
"It's a cute idea, but I'm not sure you'll get the return to justify it," said Republican candidate Bob Tatum.
"Technically, it's well done, but I'm not sure how effective it will be," added Democrat Lynn Schenk.
The results on June 2, however, could quickly alter those impressions.
"I really believe this is the wave of the future," Saatjian said. "And, if both Byron and I win, that wave might get here a lot sooner."