If Marshall McLuhan, who predicted the World Wide Web 30 years before it was invented, were alive today, he would have to change his most famous axiom to read “The Medium is the Sizzle.” But is sizzle” alone enough to win elections, or is it simply a part of the ever-expanding and changing tapestry of today’s media mix?
It’s hard to attend a political conference or read an article about campaigns and strategy that doesn’t extol the virtues of digital, social and other “new” media. But as exciting as it all is, it’s time for a quick reality check.
As a Republican consultant, I can’t deny that my party lost the technology battle last year. The Obama campaign won hands down on that score and it’s a gap our party must find a way to close. But there’s a reason that traditional media still remains the largest slice of the campaign spending pie and it’s not because Republican strategists are backwards-thinking Luddites.
If elections are still about finding the most effective way to disseminate a campaign’s message to a critical mass of persuadable voters, than there’s more than enough evidence to demonstrate the continued focus on television, radio, newspapers, direct mail and phones.
Social media is now an undeniable part of the mix, but let’s not get carried away. The adoption of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ has been rapid in campaign messaging, but it has not been complete. Users, particularly those in the high voter indexing demographics like 55+, have been very slow to embrace social media.
According to a Pew study from February of this year, 95 percent of them are not on Facebook and 99 percent have never sent or received a tweet in their lives. In fact, CNN Tech reports that 59 percent of all seniors don’t go online at all. And as hard as it is to believe, more than one in five adults do not use the Internet at all.
One of the most troubling findings for campaigns in the new Pew study is something it termed “Facebook vacations.” The study reports that almost two-thirds of Facebook users take breaks from the site for weeks at a time. A “Facebook vacation” during the first week of November could devastate a campaign that relies on the site to communicate with voters. Simply put, there is not a high correlation between social media and interest in campaigns, with only about one in 10 getting their information through these sources.
But everyone still watches television. That includes young adults. When 9 percent report that their primary source of political news is late-night television, you don’t need a slide rule (if you can still find one) to figure out that represents a much larger portion of young voters. Study after study has reinforced television’s effectiveness in swaying undecided voters, or rallying the base.
Arguably, the fastest growing “new” medium in the 2012 elections isn’t new at all—the telephone. Broadnet, far and away the largest provider of telephone town hall services, reports that no less than 130 million voters were invited to participate in a live TeleForum from an elected official or political interest group in 2012. For the vast majority of Americans, this was no doubt their only live interactive campaign experience.
To further separate hype from reality, a simple look at where the money comes from and where the money goes makes it clear that elections haven’t really changed all that much. For example, much has been written about the growth of online and email fundraising and the demise of direct mail. But the gross figures from 2012 paint a different picture altogether. More than twice as much money was raised through direct mail than through online efforts. Perhaps even more surprisingly, both of these methods took a back seat to the oldest fundraising method ever employed—direct contact. Events and face-to-face fundraisers still matter: “Hey buddy, can you write me a fat check?”
And look at where the money goes. Broadcast television may have morphed into cable and satellite but television is still king. In the 2012 cycle, more than $3 billion was spent on television—an astounding 38 percent increase over 2008, which represents more than half of all media expenditures. And despite financial woes at the Postal Service, direct mail is still not only a major fundraising tool but an important message-delivery vehicle representing 18 percent of the political media pie.
What about newspapers? They were written off as dinosaurs, but have doubled their share of campaign media dollars in every cycle since 2002, perhaps because voters find newspapers the most believable.
The truth is that traditional media garnered over 85 percent of the multibillion dollar campaign media expenditures in 2012. Why? It’s because traditional media such as radio, television, newspaper and direct mail have proven formulas for success. Social media remains a work in progress.
It would also be self-deceptive to think that targeting is something new. Demographics, geo-graphics, and psychographics have been around as long as campaigns themselves. Although talk has turned to technique, process is no substitute for content. It’s nice to be able to reach left-handed, twelve-string steel-guitar players, but in and of itself that’s just not enough. A campaign must have something substantive to motivate this nano-audience if it expects them to put the guitar down and go cast a vote.
Online has proven to be less than a panacea for other disciplines as well. Pollsters have found that online surveys can take days to reach a critical mass sample size while a new application of an old medium, automatic IVR phone calls, can literally survey tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes.
Admittedly, in many ways the lines between conventional media and new media are blurring. Today, newspapers have the top websites in 23 of the 25 largest media markets. It’s also not uncommon for candidates to launch their campaigns online and comment on developing stories in real time through social media with the objective of being picked up by mainstream media.
In an age when many elections are won or lost by a single percentage point, it’s clear that traditional media is still critical to reaching and persuading voters. A virtual beer at a nonexistent road house is not very satisfying. Even in this modern age, there is no substitute for the real thing.
Tom Edmonds is a Republican media consultant, past president of the AAPC and current chairman of the International Association of Political Consultants.