Campaigns, Communications & Control

Patrick Ruffini

8/20/2007 6:53:53 AM - Patrick Ruffini

To be called “smart” by Frank Rich in the pages of the New York Times is not something any right-minded person should aspire to. Such was my unhappy fate yesterday.

Finally, the “macaca” incident was a media touchstone. It became a national phenomenon when the video landed on YouTube , the rollicking Web site whose reach now threatens mainstream news outlets. A year later, leading Republicans are still clueless and panicked about this new medium, which is why they, unlike their Democratic counterparts, pulled out of even a tightly controlled CNN-YouTube debate. It took smart young conservative bloggers like a former Republican National Committee operative, Patrick Ruffini, to shame them into reinstating the debate for November, lest the entire G.O.P. field look as pathetically out of touch as it is.

The rise of YouTube certifies the passing of Mr. Rove’s era, a cultural changing of the guard in the digital age. Mr. Rove made his name in direct-mail fund-raising and with fierce top-down message management. As the Internet erodes snail mail, so it upends direct mail. As YouTube threatens a politician’s ability to rigidly control a message, so it threatens the Rove ethos that led Mr. Bush to campaign at “town hall” meetings attended only by hand-picked supporters.

And so goes the narrative. Republicans are all top-down. Democrats are bottom-up. What this ignores is that Rove and Mehlman ran a great new media-centric campaign in 2004, fully leveraging all the tools available to them at the time.

In 2004, it was John Kerry who had his blinders on when it came to new and alternative media. His campaign wouldn’t respond to anything in the Drudge Report. After the Swift Boat story broke, they thought they had contained the damage by leaving it to talk radio, the Internet, and Fox News to cover 24/7. The ultimate example of the New Media Davids slaying the Old Media Goliaths favored the right (Rathergate). To the Kerry campaign and its left-liberal allies in the press, it didn’t matter if the New York Times wasn’t covering it — and I’ll bet you can find a Frank Rich column to that effect backing this up.

Four years have passed, and I think Hillary Clinton is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Kerry campaign. She’s still top-down, though it’s at least smart top-down. Instead of eschewing Drudge, her campaign leaks to him and in fact imitates him. To exercise even tighter message control, communications director Howard Wolfson is said to have visions of an MLB.com-like news bureau housed within the campaign. And to combat the perception that she’s top-down, she releases slick, overproduced (and incidentally, very good) web videos showing her down-home, culturally-aware side. And the big stuff she doesn’t even post to YouTube, where she might encounter a negative comment or two.

In 2004, Republicans conquered New Media 1.0. Hillary Clinton is looking to do the same, and maybe move to New Media 2.0. But this time, the new order is not New Media or Old Media so much as it is No Media — in the sense of there being no intermediaries between a voter and a potential mass audience. A guy with his cell phone camera can see a candidate make a gaffe at a rally, upload it to YouTube, and see it go global without anyone ever interacting with the press to give the story legs. No campaign, even a grassroots-aware one, is going to wholeheartedly endorse this state of affairs — but that’s irrelevant. The only rule of campaigning in the Internet age is that there are no rules.

This isn’t good, or bad, so much as it just is. And we don’t have the luxury of making value judgments about talking snowmen or “dignity” of the process, because that bottle has been opened, and the water ain’t getting back in. Future elections aren’t going to be any less modern or tech savvy or YouTubish than this one. With people’s ability to communicate growing exponentially, communications and messaging norms will always be looser today than they were yesterday. This is the new reality. And whether one believes in it or not, everyone is just going to have to deal with it, because the Internet is not going away.

So how does one cope with this new world? Campaigns are always going to be about focused messages (yes, even the Democrat ones). The stuff that happens publicly outside the campaigns is going to be looser and more out of control than ever before. Here’s how to leverage this community: