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Jewish World Review April 1, 2002 / 20 Nisan, 5762

Dick Morris

Dick Morris
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Only Internet will bring real campaign finance reform | The McCain-Feingold-Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform law is a constructive, but limited, step toward change. The truly fundamental transformation of American campaigning - and the diminution of the power of money in politics - will only take place as the Internet continues to take political power away from television.

Television, as a political force, is on its way out. More people are watching cable programs which do not permit advertising, or are going online at night rather than watch the stale offerings of the networks. In fact, recent statistics suggest that while 40 percent of American households watch prime-time television, 20 percent spend their evenings online. Some families are even talking to one another during the evening!

As fewer and fewer Americans watch television network programming, politicians throughout the land have responded by doubling and tripling the amount of TV advertising they purchase.

With a smaller audience for each show, television ads must run twice or three times more often than was once necessary to reach the same audience. It is this conundrum which has driven the cost of political campaigning so high in recent years. More money is chasing fewer viewers.

In a few years, the Internet and television will share the same hardware as people will come to access the Net through their television sets. Soon, many websites will become television stations.

This inevitable trend toward diversification will rob political advertising of its basic premise - that you can find all the voters watching the same programs. The law of diminishing returns will finally set in, and television advertising will become like radio is today - a good way to reach 40 or 50 percent of the voters, but one that never reaches the half that don't listen to the radio.

Just as economics drove the process to television and away from direct mail, so the shift in voter viewing habits will force political campaigning to shift from television to e-mail in the near future. An e-mail campaign will be able to reach voters with a frequency that cannot be duplicated by even the heaviest of television buys. And it can customize its message to address uniquely the views and priorities of each voter - no more one-ad-fits-all political campaigning.

Only the absence of a telephone book for the Internet stops this basic shift from taking place today. There is no easy way for a politician to get the e-addresses of his state or district. Fortunately, these lists are not for sale. One has to pick up each name, one at a time.

But, when the inevitable happens, and politicians get the e-lists of their districts, e-mail campaigning will leave television in the dust.

Will voters reject unwanted e-mail from politicians as spam? Not if the e-mails are sufficiently customized to address the needs, concerns and opinions of each individual voter. Will the e-mails be redundant and boring? Political consultants will soon realize that repetition on the Internet is deadly and condensation - a key for the 30-second TV ad - is counterproductive online. Repeat the same short message over and over and over and you will lose your audience to another e-mail or website that offers new, humorous, attractive, interesting material each day.

Political campaigning will shift from being involuntary to voluntary. No longer will money allow a politician to nab voters as they watch their favorite TV program unaware of the ad that lurks at the station break. Instead, campaigns will have to lure and entice voters to visit their websites and open their e-mails.

The role of money will drop as TV advertising does. The Internet is free and e-mails cost nothing. Candidates will need sophisticated hardware and software to run Internet campaigns and staff costs will increase, but the huge checks they must now write to TV networks will become a thing of the past.

True campaign finance reform will come about just like recovery from the past recession came about - by inevitable market forces that have nothing to do with legislation. Why will television advertising no longer work? Because people will stop watching.

JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, The New Prince. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Dick Morris