New Media Help, Hinder Politicians

New Media Help, Hinder Politicians
By Jim Nolan

In 2005, Timothy M. Kaine’s successful campaign for Virginia governor held special conference calls for Internet bloggers.

“We were considered cutting edge,” said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who served as the campaign’s communications director.

Jump ahead to the 2008 presidential campaign, during which Democratic candidate Barack Obama announced his choice of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate via text message.

Now fast-forward to last week, when Kaine’s casual remark to a dozen University of Richmond students that he was becoming more likely to run for the U.S. Senate went worldwide within an hour via Twitter — prematurely jump-starting a campaign that the candidate himself has yet to decide upon.

Welcome to the Social Network News. No reporters. No fact-checking. No deadlines. Just millions of everyday people with smartphones capturing a politician’s every movement and every moment — with the capacity to tell everyone about it, instantly.

“No, it is not controllable,” said Elleithee. “And that is both the beauty and the challenge.”

As the 2011 political season gets under way, experts say candidates for elected office — be it local or statewide — will have opportunities to instantly communicate their message to prospective voters they have never had before. And with it, they will also have an unparalleled opportunity to scuttle their lofty ambitions at any unguarded moment.

“It’s a brave new world, and you would have thought our esteemed former governor (Kaine) would have taken some lessons from George Allen and taken care of what he was saying and to whom,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican new-media strategist who worked on the 2009 campaign of Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Harris was referring to the landmark political gaffe that Allen committed during his Senate re-election campaign in 2006. Allen referred to a Democratic aide of Indian descent, who was following him with a video camera, as “macaca,” a racial insult. Many believe the gaffe cost Allen the race against Democrat Jim Webb.

In 2006, Harris explained, the Webb staffer had to go back to his house and upload the video, which did not surface as a campaign issue until it was referenced by a blog and picked up by the mainstream media.

“Now you don’t need to go home — you can stream live video,” said Harris. “Nothing is private and nothing is sacred and everything is open and public.”

A recent case in point was last November’s congressional race between Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, D-11th, and Republican Keith Fimian. Harris, who worked for Fimian, said the campaign used a picture of Connolly smoking a cigar at a bar in Fairfax taken by a supporter.

“Nothing is off-limits to citizen journalists and every campaign, every member of every campaign, needs to watch what they’re saying everywhere,” said Harris. “Not just 9 to 5.”

The new age is most perilous to the candidates themselves.

“If something is out of place or misspoken, it can get out of control really quickly,” said Robert Denton, a professor of communication and politics at Virginia Tech. And the higher-profile the race, the more digitally capable eyes and ears that will be following the comings and goings of the candidates.

Denton said the dynamic leads to a “punch-counterpunch” pace to modern campaigning that can be labor-intensive and not always serve the best interests of informing the public.

“You really have to stay on top of it — you’re always fighting for control,” he said.

“It’s not just a challenge for candidates, but it is also a challenge for journalists,” said Elleithee. “You can see the potential for a complete and total disintegration of the quality of our public discourse, when reporters are breaking stories and giving analysis in 140 characters or less.”

Still, the mobile digital age has brought many blessings to political message-makers that make being engaged a no-brainer, even with the potential risks.

“It’s better to be a user than not a user at all,” said Harris.

“A good campaign is one that knows how to use it to get the message out, to organize and to raise money,” said Elleithee, citing the 2008 Obama campaign for mastery of the medium.

Now, he says, the hyper-fast mobile medium can also be leveraged to organize rapid, grass-roots response to campaign attacks that hit the wireless airwaves and help frame the debate.

So where does it go from here?

“Blessing or curse, it’s clearly here to stay for good,” said Denton.

Harris said the proliferation of the technology and its ease of use by more and more people could ultimately make candidates more timid in their remarks and cautious of their surroundings.

“Now they’ll be almost frantically thinking every 5-year-old with a cellphone could be the opposition,” he said.

Elleithee said the blessing or the curse will rest with the candidate.

“A good candidate is saying the same thing in public that they’re saying in private after an event,” he said. And in both situations, the advice is simple:

“Don’t say anything stupid.”