The Avatar Candidate


From grassroots, to net-roots, to the digi-stump.

Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for president was widely regarded as the first successful use of the Internet to raise large sums of money in small increments from online contributors. At about the same time, GOP guru Karl Rove was perfecting the micro-focused campaign, by which computer-generated data were used to target voters based on their habits as consumers.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign climbed to higher high-tech levels, using the Internet to organize supporters and creating YouTube videos to stream messages to voters. By 2012, however, the digital-stump will make all this look as outdated as Sarah Palin’s hair style.

Imagine getting a robotic phone call in which the candidate greets you by your first name. Think how positively spontaneous campaign speeches would seem if politicians walked across a stage while magically reading from an invisible floor-prompter that follows them around. Consider the value of TV commercials that invite contributions or pitch bumper stickers simply by asking viewers to push a button on the remote control. Ponder a political website so personalized that it’s written in each voter’s preferred language — be it English, Spanish, or Chinese.

All this is part of the digital Disneyland that is Republican Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor here in California. And why not? The former eBay CEO certainly knows the tech territory. And her bank account, from which $80 million was drawn just to fund her win in the primary, can support the most advanced eCampaign.

As reported by Ken McLaughlin in the San Jose Mercury News, Whitman has already spent nearly $3 million on website development and information technology alone, seven times more than her Democratic opponent, the former governor Jerry Brown, has spent on his entire campaign.

Remember way back in ’08 when Obama and McCain raced against the 24/7 news clock to push back against whatever the other said in campaign speeches? Whitman’s staff is providing a glimpse of how that will work in 2012.

According to the Mercury News, while Brown was delivering a speech on June 15, Whitman staffers were sending it by iPhone to a site for video feeds called Ustream, and from there to campaign headquarters where others dissected it and fired off countering e-mails that reached political reporters before Brown finished speaking.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with Whitman’s high-tech campaign. Indeed, it may have the added benefit of suggesting to voters that Brown is out of touch not just by virtue of his age (he’s 72, she’s 53), but also by his comparatively modest use of tech tools. A recent Field Poll shows that Brown has lost ground, and the race is now a dead heat.

For what it’s worth, Brown has five times more Twitter followers than Whitman, and has long advocated computerization of government functions. But if this election comes down to computer savvy, Brown’s in trouble.

Meanwhile, although Whitman’s tech trek across California is remarkable for its sheer wizardry, it may actually represent a kind of long-term campaign reform. In coming years candidates will be able to reach more voters via the Internet at a much lower cost than with conventional television advertising. E-mail campaigning and social messaging are certainly less costly than sending out printed mailers.

An electronic town hall might make it possible for more candidates who lack great personal wealth to run for office. And the voting process itself, when done online, will save taxpayers enormous sums.

On the other hand, critics of Whitman’s eCampaign believe that electronic sleight of hand allows her to disguise her image more easily, while also confusing voters about her record. Is she the first avatar candidate?

Between now and November Californians will be struggling to find the message, while the rest of the nation, with an eye toward 2012, examines the medium.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

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