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February 7, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: What’s TiVo got to do with it?

For anyone still pondering what to do with those gift certificates from Best Buy or Circuit City, allow me to make a suggestion: Buy TiVo, and be sure you have it up and running by late summer. Otherwise you may never want to watch television again.

Why? Because Jan. 31 was the filing deadline for Kentucky political candidates for the 2006 election, and a record 672 candidates filed candidacy papers with Secretary of State Trey Grayson. In Jefferson County alone, more than 200 candidates filed for nearly 100 federal, state, county, metro and judicial races.

But Louisville residents will soon feel the impact of candidates well beyond their borders, because their media market encompasses no fewer than four congressional districts across two states, all with competitive races this year for the first time in recent memory.

Beyond the federal races, Democratic Mayor Jerry Abramson will face a spirited test from Republican Metro Council member Kelly Downard in this year’s mayoral race, and three candidates will battle for the right to replace Martin Johnstone on the Kentucky Supreme Court.

So, what’s TiVo got to do with it?

Well, it’s either that or sitting through an unimaginable number of political commercials, some for races not even on your particular ballot. Good luck keeping straight Mike Sodrel, Mike Weaver and Anne Shake and trying to remember who is running for which seat and what they stand for and whether they even represent you.
TiVo will let you escape that onslaught.

As a matter of fact, TiVo and other such technologies are part of a larger problem that candidates now must face, and quickly adapt to, if they hope to talk directly to an already skeptical public.

As technology advances and streamlines our lives, it continues to upend traditional political campaigning. Aside from skipping commercials, as TiVo so wonderfully allows, our ever-changing personal habits — especially for the younger, and professional crowd — make it ever more difficult for candidates to reach us before Election Day.

Consider how recent changes have already impacted radio as a vehicle, a crucial tool for campaigns unable to afford the $100,000 per week that a modest television ad buy now costs in Louisville.
For a while now, iPods have let us listen to songs we choose without turning on a radio. Recent increases in satellite radio listeners are causing even greater impact, because local campaigns can’t advertise there. At the end of 2004, satellite radio had a combined 5.5 million listeners, and that is projected to grow to 15 million by the end of 2006. Surely Howard Stern’s move to satellite radio will only further that trend.

The continued growth of satellite TV (now 26 million subscribers nationwide) continues to fracture that medium, making advertising decisions even more problematic for candidates. While local cable advertising provided a cheaper (albeit less-effective) method of reaching voters, the growth of satellite now undercuts a cable-only buy, since doing so will miss households with satellite television or no cable at all.

Daily newspapers increasingly hurt political campaigns as they cut bureaus and staff to meet bottom lines, thereby limiting campaign reporting to the more sensational items or saving it for the period just before an election.

Political blogs are growing in both influence and readership, which also compounds mainstream media’s problem. Blogs spur closer examination of issues and political campaigns; a candidate’s carefully written and poll-tested 30-second ad, chock full of platitudes, doesn’t survive very long online, where the candid two-way nature of blogs provides for a much deeper assessment of a candidacy — much to the chagrin of candidates and consultants.

What about phones? Well, the ubiquitous nature of cell phones makes it difficult for political pollsters to gauge public opinion accurately. Aside from the challenge of contacting a mobile group of people, pollsters are hampered by legal restrictions on the use of automated dialing equipment. They have yet to figure out how to statistically blend cell phone results into traditional polls.

Finally, more sophisticated spam detection now snares blast e-mails from political campaigns before recipients can read or delete, shutting down yet another path to delivering a message.

What are candidates to do? Well, there is that one old-school method of communicating with voters, the one that works like a charm. It’s called face-to-face interaction between candidates and voters at voters’ front door.

So, you see, things do change, but they do stay the same. In the meantime, however, you might want to get that TiVo.

Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org