SWING STATE : THE INFLUENTIALS
In Ohio, Building a Political Echo
Campaigns Rely on Word of Mouth to Spread Message
By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page A01
CINCINNATI -- Christa Criddle is not the sort of person who springs to mind when political operatives talk about "opinion leaders." She does not have a column, or talk show, or Web site. But if someone wants to influence opinion in her patch of Ohio suburbia, this 35-year-old mother of three is a good place to start.
There are many reasons. Criddle has time, she is just fine with strangers, and she has friends, a bunch of whom gathered in her living room the other night for a party to support President Bush's reelection. Most of all, Criddle has strong views -- lots of them.
"What will our country be like if John Kerry wins?" she implored her guests to imagine. "That scares me to death. . . . Liberalism today is modern socialism."
Criddle is one example of whom Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman calls an "influential." That name comes from a book about marketing, "The Influentials," one of Mehlman's favorite texts to explain the challenge of political communication in a world crowded by the proliferation of cable networks, talk shows and Web sites. The thesis of authors Ed Keller and Jon Berry is that it is a small percentage of the population that -- by virtue of being more attentive, more vocal and more immersed in the rushing currents of modern life -- drives popular tastes.
Influentials help explain why one TV show becomes a hit while another flops. And, Mehlman believes, they will be indispensable filters and promoters of the attitudes and arguments that will frame the choices voters make this fall.
The Bush campaign has decided to put those influentials to work, adopting a strategy that might be called echo politics. It sends out talking points and lists radio talk shows for each metropolitan area as well as suggested issues and tips for getting on the air.
Its Web site provides links for supporters to e-mail local newspapers directly. The campaign has hoarded about 6 million e-mail addresses, including some purchased from lists, and has 420,000 volunteers -- 28,000 in Ohio alone -- who in addition to fulfilling traditional tasks such as voter registration and turnout are creating an echo of the Bush campaign message from the neighborhood up.
The Kerry campaign has made a nod to this type of politics. The Democrat encourages supporters to plan "meet-ups" of like-minded activists, borrowing from a phenomenon that helped drive former Vermont governor Howard Dean to prominence last year. But Kerry's campaign, by visible evidence, does not have as well-developed a strategy for exploiting the new political marketplace, in which people get news and argument from many more sources than they did even four years ago. A Kerry aide contended that the campaign's e-mail list of 690,000 may be just as valuable as Bush's since it does not include purchased addresses, and that the campaign's Web site will be updated to include some features of the Bush site, such as a letter-to-the-editor function.
A better example of echo politics on the left is the work of MoveOn.org, an online political group that claims about 1.7 million activists with whom it stays in touch by e-mail. The group has been spending heavily in the traditional manner, buying anti-Bush TV ads in Ohio and other swing states. But it also has begun a more innovative program to monitor the news media for stories that volunteers believe tilt unfairly to conservatives, and some members in Ohio are planning a campaign to promote more liberal callers to talk radio shows.
The strategies of MoveOn and the Bush campaign are responses to the new complexity of political communication. In an earlier age, two and three decades ago, shaping public opinion was a more mechanical exercise. Operatives bought many television ads on a small number of stations and, if the ads were decent, they could be reasonably confident that opinion would move as they anticipated.
In the 1990s, the ascent of talk radio and cable networks reshaped public moods -- indifferent one moment, prone to sudden attack the next, forever prowling for new subjects. Newt Gingrich, O.J. Simpson and Monica S. Lewinsky all had their moment in the cycle. Since then, each new election cycle multiplies the number of outlets in a limitless spectrum of media -- from traditional newspapers at one end to obscure Web logs at the other -- and makes the task of shaping opinion more daunting. So do new technological devices, such as TiVo, which allows television viewers to skip commercials.
"You have a world where a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention," said Mehlman, in a phrase he has made a constant refrain. "It's almost a cacophony of information. The way people get through it is by turning to people they trust."
Strategist Matthew Dowd, his colleague, has a more colloquial way of putting it. Remember "Waterworld," Kevin Costner's box-office bomb? "You can spend $100 million making that movie and $50 million advertising it, but people are not going to go if their neighbor says they saw it and it stinks." An opposite example, he said, is "The Blair Witch Project," a movie hit that shot from obscurity because of word-of-mouth endorsements.
The political world has its equivalents of "You've got to see it" and "It stinks." Which words best describe Kerry: war hero or waffler? Does Bush have a plan for winning Iraq? Or maybe this whole thing is really Vice President Cheney's way of enriching Halliburton. A senior operative with Bush's Ohio campaign said he heard that one from his neighbor -- the kind of conspiracy theory that gets scant acknowledgment from traditional news organizations but can thrive in the echo culture.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Activist J.B. Lawton of Dublin, Ohio, reads a statement during a protest he organized outside the WSYX television station in Columbus. He announced the idea on his Web log, which is posted on a liberal Web site, and began calling and e-mailing other liberal activists in the area.
(Will Shilling For The Washington Post)
About the Series|
This occasional series on the presidential election in Ohio, which both President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have identified as a critical swing state, examines the evolving strategies and techniques for motivating supporters and persuading uncommitted voters in an age of deep partisan divides.
Video: Malta, Ohio, residents cope with high unemployment in a struggle to maintain their small-town way of life. (First in a four-part series.)