The end of retail politics as we knew it

Republican primary voters in Iowa are feeling neglected. In presidential races past, they have enjoyed the undivided attention of the media and candidates on account of their status as the first thermometer that takes the temperature of the voters in a national race. In contrast, during this round the “candidates have barely visited the state.”

image: websitesandsoundbites.comSo why has it changed, you ask? First, the old cliche is true. The internet changed everything. Taking a lesson from President Obama’s successful strategy in 2008, candidates increasingly rely on websites and internet based video ads to get their message out and to fundraise. This is also partly a result of how “news” is reported. The major media now focus almost exclusively on horserace coverage weighted heavily to daily polls and easy soundbytes. This sort of messaging is more easily controlled via the release of prepared video statements rather than chancing the unpredictability of in person appearances before possibly disgruntled voters. I’d guess it’s also cheaper than long term bus tours on the ground.

Furthermore, the old rule that all politics are local is slowly becoming obsolete. Again, learning from President Obama’s 50 state strategy, it appears the over abundance of GOP debates is geared towards reaching a national audience, rather than targeting each state individually. Which again brings us back to the internet. It never sleeps and never forgets. Time was when candidates could say different things to different demographic groups and get away with it. Nowadays, via the social media, citizens with handheld cameras can blast out proof of a candidate delivering a conflicting message in a matter of minutes. Thus the candidates are forced to stick to homogenous and generic talking points.

And finally we have the influx of outside money unleashed by the Citizens United decision. Operating mainly under cover of deep pocket, anonymous funders, ideological interest groups using deceivingly populist names like Americans for Prosperity, or American Crossroads, can flood the airwaves with marginally true, or even completely false, attack ads. This allows the candidates plausible deniability in distancing themselves from the devious mud-slinging and frees their own funds for last minute, on the ground outreach that hasn’t quite yet become obsolete.

Still, the on the ground glad-handing is arguably declining, leaving the less electronically savvy voters somewhat confused. Particularly in the early states that have enjoyed being personally wooed by the candidates for decades. As one local Iowa official puts it:

“We just haven’t had as much face time,” Republican chairwoman Trudy Caviness in Wapello County said. “That’s why we’re so undecided.”

I’d suggest they get used to it. If this trend keeps growing, by 2016 this sort of retail politicking may well be considered a relic of the past.

Libby Spencer
Libby Spencer is a social media maven whose political commentary has been published on a wide variety of websites including a rather short lived guest blog at Fox News. She has been practicing her particular brand of punditry at the Detroit News Politics blog since April 2004.