Can big ideas still trump big money in elections?

Changes in campaign finance and media have created the train wreck that is the Republican primary. But social media could actually create room for ideas in campaigns, too.

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Changes in campaign finance and media have created the train wreck that is the Republican primary. But social media could actually create room for ideas in campaigns, too.

The same democratization of media that killed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, fueled revolution in North Africa and the Middle East, and relentlessly and virally hounds hypocrisy, is also changing the way we govern ourselves in ways we don’t yet understand. Candidates and consultants are gearing up for a Brave New World that is shattering the status quo and giving power to ideas over convention.

Elections over the next two years will tell us much about political and social directions. And much like the Arab Spring, the road will be bumpy.

First, let’s consider the Republican nomination process. What went wrong?

The Republicans are relentlessly hammering their inevitable candidate, Mitt Romney. In past years, there is no way Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul would have made it this far. They are, by any measure, unelectable.

Romney's rivals have survived due to an avalanche of debates —which has been a disaster for the party — by earned media driven by those sometimes crazy debates, and by social media. They have also survived by the new phenomena ushered in by our U.S. Supreme Court and its Citizens United case — the Super PACs. Rick Santorum even appears on stage with his Super PAC's leading donor, Foster Friess.

And even though they’re not supposed to coordinate, somebody told Sugar Daddy Friess where to stand and what to say. And maybe they shared a bottle of water in the greenroom. But they probably don’t talk about campaign strategy. Right.

Imagine if Bob Dole was put through this in 1996? Much like Romney, he was the establishment choice. There was no Tea Party to pressure him although there was the Moral Majority. But there wasn’t decentralized access to mass media that was free. That is now and it is real.

Consider the revolution in Egypt. The government controlled all media outlets except for Facebook and Twitter. Iran is now trying to create a Halal internet to control information. The fear of democracy in the Middle East is real, and the application of those same tools right here in America and Washington state is creating uncertainty and excitement about the possibilities for greater public involvement in our political processes.

Even before Youtube created outrage and inspiration for the Arab Spring, it had begun to change politics in this country. Recall how videos of Sen. George Allen and his "Macaca" comments brought him down in a tough campaign.   

Our local consultants are trying to adjust and keep on top of all these changes. One big problem for them is how these new lines of communication and organization are impacting their economic bread and butter, the mail houses. They want candidates to raise money and spend it on the production of mail pieces.

The standard campaign here is for the candidate to spend every waking hour asking for money which goes to the production of as many of these pieces as possible. As a former candidate (for Seattle City Council), I bear witness to the feeling that you are a beast of burden for an industry that creates much heat and very little light. Mail pieces are either glossy vanilla expressions of the obvious or exaggerated cartoons of an opponent guilty of callous disregard for old people and the poor.

It would be wrong to say this game makes people do things that are wrong. Most often it makes people do things that are inconsequential. The winners are the consultants, the mail houses, fundraisers, and the media. The losers are everyone else.

But what is a candidate to do? There are limited ways in which to reach voters with your message: Doorbelling is by far the best way to reach voters. The problem with doorbelling is that you can’t do it very effectively citywide or statewide. Candidates generally do it to get out of call time which makes consultants crazy. The other ways are through direct mail, TV, and cable buys.

The problem with mail pieces is that many people don’t read their mail anymore and it is getting harder and harder to get the timing right on when the pieces land. In a back and forth fight timing can be everything. And, ironically, all mail-in elections have made the timing harder still. While older voters still read the mail, generational shifts are continuing. Just as younger voters don’t watch the evening news anymore. Witness the advertising for pharmaceuticals and laxatives: They consider snail mail an artifact.

The sea changes in communication since 2009, when I ran for Council, have been fast and relentless.

The good news for candidates and the public — and the somewhat bad news for consultants — is that social media affords the possibility that good ideas, as well as bad, depending on your perspective, can become viral and drive earned media for the political debate. This is why we’re still talking about Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul. It would be unheard of in years past for these guys to be hanging around given Romney’s huge delegate lead.

And although Gingrich hasn’t had the Big Idea, he knows that everyone is just one Big Viral Idea away from success. Unfortunately for him, his ideas lately seem more nutty than viral.

So, who will find the Big Idea to drive the debate in Washington State? In the Gubernatorial race Inslee and McKenna are so far running pretty conventional campaigns, shoring up constituency groups and trying not to offend. This also means that most people couldn’t really say what they are for or against. They are for good schools, a strong economy, handsome children, puppies and kittens, blah, blah, blah.

In Seattle, one candidate is trying something new. City Councilman Mike O’Brien is making campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his 2013 re-election campaign. He is only accepting $10 donations until he reaches $10,000. Will it catch on? It’s hard to say but I bet he’s having more fun and spending less time dialing for dollars. This sort of thing makes consultants cringe so I say: Good on you, Mike!

I don’t think campaign finance reform will be the big issue in the next few years. But it is obvious that the same forces that have democratized information, transformed journalism, and overthrown dictatorships is at play in our politics at the national, state, and local levels. What will be the Big Idea? Somebody will figure it out, and just like a comedian can make us laugh at something we didn’t realize we knew, we will scratch our head and wonder why we didn’t think of it first. And we’ll know it all at the same time.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.