Mike McCurry, formerly President Bill Clinton's press secretary, has a story about one long ago campaign that illustrates what media changes have wrought. "We had a conference call every night to discuss how the networks' nightly newscasts portrayed the election. That's an utterly useless call now."
I'm sorry, did I say "long ago?" McCurry was talking about 2004, when he was a senior adviser to Democratic Presidential nominee Senator John Kerry. That call, he says now, was "a fundamental navigation point for where we [were]." But tracking the evening news "turned out to be a fundamentally wrong choice. What was happening underneath us was this enormous swell of the grassroots" that was invisible to those newscasts. Indeed, it was invisible to much of the media world—including portions that tilted to the right—until fired-up evangelicals turned out en masse and re-elected George W. Bush. Today's media world—forgive me for stating the obvious—is much different from that of 2004. But those differences have ramifications that may yet surprise.
The severe compression of the post-convention campaign makes this both the longest and shortest Presidential election cycle ever. I mean, Barack Obama and John McCain started campaigning in earnest in...when, 2005? 2002? Recall, too, the sheer volume of major events. In one recent 96-hour period we witnessed the following: Obama's acceptance speech; McCain naming Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential nominee; Hurricane Gustav boring in on New Orleans; and Bristol Palin becoming the most famous pregnant teen since Jamie Lynn Spears. (Since then, we've experienced Hurricanes Ike and Wall Street.)
And now it's easier than ever to get the informational equivalent of an ice cream headache. In 2008 those desiring a quick, real-time dipstick check of certain precincts of the electorate can scan their Facebook pals' status updates, or assemble ongoing focus groups on Twitter. (Remember: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (GOOG) did not exist in 2004, and MySpace (NWS) had yet to scale galactic heights.) On top of saturation coverage from established media outlets comes a new explosion in online offerings. During the 2004 election, political junkies could spend hours each morning with abcnews.com's (DIS) The Note, which wrapped tart commentary around links to all major political stories. Now, there's also The Page, which Note founder Mark Halperin updates more or less constantly at Time.com, and a well-reported blog by another Note founder, Marc Ambinder, for The Atlantic. Also, among other newcomers, Politico, the full-bore online political news operation that launched in 2007, and the estimable FiveThirtyEight, which dispenses admirably nutritious information several times a day. On Sept. 11, FiveThirtyEight pointed out that the endless info bloat will extend to polls, too: "It looks like we're going to be averaging something like 10 to 20 state polls and 6 to 7 national polls per weekday"—and possibly more as Election Day draws nearer. (Prepare yourself.)
Yet in 2008, more turns out to equal less. The Web, we are told, ushers in transparency. In the current general election it has gotten us two of the tightest, most locked-down campaign message machines in memory. (John McCain's once-legendary openness to the press is now long gone.) The explosion in outlets isn't offering more news so much as increasing the power of those that have scarcity on their side: the campaigns themselves.
The Republican campaign shielded the suddenly famous Palin from the press—indeed, from any unscripted settings. You, like me, may find this ludicrous, but the populace punished them with a bounce in the polls, at least in the short-term. And in the eyes of some smart observers, swelling outlets and contracting access has had the perverse effect of increasing, not decreasing, herd mentality. "You'd think all this press attention would put a higher premium on originality," says James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic. Instead, he says, "the echo chamber has intensified." But then today politicos can watch their Twitter and Facebook feeds all day long and thus constantly monitor—and shape—the assumptions of a collective brain.
In 2008 you can roll your own campaign: Watch unexpurgated speeches on YouTube, scan customized news and blog feeds. But in the endgame of an election, that's not terribly significant. If you recognized yourself in the aforementioned description, you're what the campaigns call a "high-information voter" and probably made up your mind long ago. The campaigns are now focused on the "low-information voter" just tuning in. Congrats if you can spit out the results of the last three Ohio polls right down to the margin of error, but the campaigns care more about the harried parents of three kids in exurban Colorado who've only started to pay attention. As always, those voters will be pounded with messages as simplistic as an old Miller Lite ad. ("Not Ready to Lead!" "More of the Same!") Given today's information noise, don't count on sober debates about the issues—or clearheaded refutations of questionable ad claims—to gain much traction, unless you love courting disappointment.
Yes, the Obama campaign has banked on organization and the power of the social networking aspects of mybarackobama.com, hoping to propel more supporters to the polls on Nov. 4. But we won't know until then if the strategy will work. Instead, the one game in town is, again, a blunt-tool campaign aimed straight at disengaged swing-state voters. Despite hundreds of new online outlets, despite millions of new YouTube videos, that campaign will remarkably resemble those of the past.