Technology and the Changing Face of Political Campaigns

By Richard A. Lee

Ever since the Clinton-Gore campaign used a primitive version of the internet to keep in contact with staff members in 1992, it seems that every successive election gets labeled as a “net election” that will change the nature of politicking. Last year’s presidential campaign did more than merely continue this pattern. The Obama campaign used technology so creatively and effectively that it may have permanently altered the dynamics of politics in America, and possibly internationally.
It is unlikely that New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election will have as dramatic an impact on the future of campaigning, but there have been significant developments in technology over the past four years that may influence strategy and change some of the dynamics from what they were the last time we elected a governor. When Jon Corzine and Doug Forrester squared off against each other in 2005, YouTube was in its infancy, the only people on Facebook were students, and Twitter didn’t even exist. This year, all three are essential tools being utilized by candidates all over the nation.

But not only do YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of new media provide another means of conveying news and information about a candidate, they also offer campaigns the ability to bypass the media and communicate directly to voters. Citizens no longer need to rely on newspapers, radio and television to gather and deliver information about the candidates and their platforms. On one hand, this makes political information more readily accessible than ever. But on the other hand, the information often bypasses the gatekeepers of traditional journalism, whose role it is to scrutinize, challenge and verify information before it is provided to the public. Instead, campaigns can now post their press releases, photos and videos online and email them directly to voters. Whether reporters show up to cover a press conference may have far less consequence today since campaigns can record the conferences and send video clips to their contact lists – and probably target the clips for different audiences to achieve maximum impact.

The implications of this trend are significant. If voters rely more heavily on unfiltered information from campaigns (as they may, due to the popularity of the internet as an information source and the downturn in the media industry which has limited the content and quality of many news organizations), they are unlikely to obtain the objective, factual information required to make informed choices in the voting booth.

So what does all of this mean for New Jersey and this year’s campaign for governor?

It means more responsibility for all of us. We have more sources for news and information than ever, but no one is going to sort out the good, the bad and the ugly for us. To make intelligent, informed decisions, we need to become intelligent, informed media consumers. That means obtaining as much information as possible – from as many different and divergent sources as possible – before making up our mind on an issue or a candidate. Think about it. We all go through a process like this when we buy a house, a car or a computer. Surely, we should do the same when it comes time to select our next governor.

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