Donnie Fowler has seen the future of American politics. Pull out your cellphone and you can see it as well.
As people increasingly tailor their leisure time to suit their lifestyles -- through blogs, MySpace, iPods, video on demand -- politicians and their promoters are facing the same problem as Hollywood and the makers of toothpaste: How do you sell your product to an increasingly fragmented audience?
To Fowler, a veteran Democratic strategist, the next big thing is the small screen on the cellphone in your purse or pocket. In just a few years, he said, the tiny device will allow you to access the Internet in all its vastness, as though you were seated in front of a computer.
“You’ll not only be able to text people with messages, you’ll be able to raise money, deliver video, audio, create viral organizing -- where one person sees something really interesting and it gets passed on and on,” said Fowler, who recently started a company, Cherry Tree Mobile Media, to promote wireless communication as a campaign tool.
In technology, there is Moore’s Law, the notion that computing power doubles about every 18 months. Politics has a rough equivalent, with every election bringing some heralded innovation that transforms the way campaigns are fought and contests are won.
The “blast fax” -- or ability to send a printed page to hundreds of recipients at a time -- was a big deal in the 1980s, before e-mail. Websites, once a campaign novelty, are ubiquitous today. Ditto candidate blogs.
“Most people thought we were out of our minds,” said Joe Trippi, who midwifed the first online presidential campaign diary as a part of Howard Dean’s 2004 race. “Now I can’t think of a single congressional campaign that doesn’t have one.”
In the latest creative wrinkle, politicians are podcasting -- White House hopefuls Gen. Wesley K. Clark, John Edwards and Sen. Bill Frist are among those regularly offering their downloadable ruminations -- and turning up on Flickr, MySpace, YouTube and other photo- and video-sharing Internet sites.
Cable companies are pitching politics on demand after trial runs in Colorado’s 2004 U.S. Senate race and the 2005 governor’s race in New Jersey, which allowed voters to order free clips of the candidates discussing issues. (Even NJ Weedman, the gubernatorial hopeful of the Marijuana Party, got his say.)
Within a few years, it may be possible to target cable TV spots -- this ad intended for older voters, that one for renters -- the way customized mailers are now routed to selected homes.
And though cellphone technology is still in its political infancy, some campaigns are already using text messaging to get out the vote, recruit volunteers or lure prospects to their websites, which feature all manner of interactive links.
The fundamentals of politics haven’t changed. Even promoters of the most razzle-dazzle technology say a successful candidate has to be likable, offer a message with broad resonance and show up in ads. There needs to be “a coherent vision,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. “People aren’t just dopes, sitting in front of their TVs or computers waiting to give some Pavlovian response.”
But even the basics have to be recalibrated when invention changes the way people live -- as quickly, it often seems, as the click of a mouse.
Come 2008, who knows? Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona wowed political savants in 2000 by raising $7.5 million on the Internet for his White House bid. Four years later, Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts raised $82 million online for his presidential run. “We’re still only at 10 o’clock in the morning on the first day of the revolution,” said Phil Noble, one of cyberspace’s political pioneers. “Pay real close attention, because tomorrow it’s all going to change again.”
The change is being driven mainly by the relentless growth of the Internet and its technologies.
Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans were online in 1995, compared with nearly 8 in 10 a decade later, according to Michael Bassik, a vice president with MSHC Partners, a leading online political ad agency.
More and more, Americans are also turning to the Internet for entertainment. About a third of people now spend more time online than watching television, listening to the radio or partaking of other media.
With so many choices -- and the ability to tune out unwanted intrusions -- it is becoming ever more difficult for candidates to reach a mass audience. “The voter has more and more control: the remote, TiVo,” said Trippi. “The trick now is, how do you build a community that wants to hear from you?”
One way is to start with a core of supporters, then build out from there.
For instance, the Republican Conference, the party’s message center on Capitol Hill, now videotapes news conferences and other appearances by GOP leaders, making them available for downloading. With little publicity, nearly 50,000 people have subscribed to the free podcasts, most from outside Washington.
“You do an interview with the L.A. Times or a local TV station, people may just have the set on waiting to watch ‘Jeopardy,’ or flip through the paper looking for the coupons,” party spokesman Sean Springer said. “Here people are much more engaged.”
The idea -- and the breakthrough achieved by Dean’s campaign -- is using the Internet to turn supporters into stakeholders, as well as proselytizers. To that end, both major parties now use their websites as organizing tools, recruiting volunteers and enlisting them to spread what is, literally, the party line. Go to www.gop.org and you can type in your ZIP code and glean a listing of local talk radio shows to call, “talking points” included.
“It’s about building ... an ongoing community,” Karen Finney, a Democratic Party spokeswoman, said of the dialogue promoted on her party’s website -- www.dnc.org -- which, naturally, includes a blog. “We hope to accomplish buzz,” added Josh McConaha, the party’s Internet director (a job that didn’t exist two years ago).
Call it viral or grass-roots or buzz marketing; anyone who has ever used e-mail to share a joke, a newspaper article or a video snippet understands the concept. It’s basically word-of-mouth, the notion that a recommendation from someone you know and trust is worth infinitely more than a paid ad or celebrity plug. Thus, somebody who would delete an e-mail from, say, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Phil Angelides will likely peek if a friend passes along his campaign video spoofing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
How do you know when something has gone viral? “When it takes on a life of its own,” said Bassik, traveling from family to friends to co-workers and on and on, infinitum.
That, however, is exceedingly rare in politics. More often, the Internet seems to act as a centrifugal force, pushing people apart as they burrow deeper into niches: conservative or liberal blogs, websites devoted to celebrating political personalities, or trashing them. Where the people go, candidates follow, and in today’s 50-50 politics, there is strong temptation to aim at those extremes -- fragmentation leading to further polarization.
But some say the Internet is no more inherently good or bad than, say, a printing press.
“If you’ve got someone out to polarize and they’re good at it, they’ll polarize,” said Internet consultant Michael Cornfield. “If someone’s out to build a consensus, and they’re good at it, they’ll build consensus.”
Whether accessed via laptop, BlackBerry or cellphone, the Internet is indisputably empowering, making politics more horizontal and creating broad new communities of interest, even in an age of increased fragmentation.
“People now have wonderful spider webs of relationships that span thousands of miles and thousands of people,” said Henry Copeland, whose company, BlogAds, places advertising on 300 of the most heavily trafficked political websites. “In the past, you’d say something to five colleagues. Now you see something you’re interested in, you instantly forward it to a list of 30 buddies who give a damn about politics.”