July 6, 2004

Listserv Campaigning Heats Up

A listserv sends email messages to Internet addresses simultaneously at no cost to the sender. The technology has been available to campaigners for years. This year, the Bush and Kerry campaigns have cranked up listserv messaging in order to spur the faithful into grassroots politicking, which has come back into fashion. Television advertising still eats up most of the money in races for high office. But one reason is because TV is regarded as less effective per ad than in the past. Political pros now see door-knocking as the best method to persuade fence-sitters. To get supporters to knock on those doors –and to get extra dollars to pay for the television spots– the campaigns have turned to listservs.

The Bush and Kerry campaigns sent out approximately forty emails each to their main lists in April, May, and June. That’s roughly one every other day. Most of these were formatted in simulated stationery. (The Nader campaign has shipped out straight text appeals about once a week) The listserv letters have been signed mainly by the campaign managers, with a well-timed celebrity name now and then: Barbara Bush on Mother’s Day, Robert Redford on Earth Day. The basic contents resemble that found in political direct mail. The negative emails say, “See what a nefarious campaign we’re up against?” The positives say, “Thank you, you are awesome, keep it up.” Candidate comparisons and contrasts are rare; since listserv mail recipients have, in most cases, provided their email addresses for these missives, it is presumed they don’t need convincing. Issues get discussed, but not in depth.

This being the Net, listserv communiqués come not just with slick photography and graphics, but with links to the campaign Web site (to process contributions of money and volunteer time) and specially produced streaming videos. This is how Hitler came into the picture. The controversy began last fall, when the progressive advocates at MoveOn.org staged a public contest for the best thirty-second spot to attack President Bush. Two of the more than 1,500 entries juxtaposed the President with Hitler. MoveOn apologized and removed the entries from its Web site. But nothing placed on the Web ever really disappears.

On June 24, the Bush-Cheney campaign sent its listserv a video entitled “The Faces of John Kerry’s Democratic Party: The Coalition of the Wild-Eyed.” It’s a 77-second montage of angry speakers: Al Gore, Adolf Hitler, Howard Dean, Michael Moore, Richard Gephardt, Hitler again, Gore again, John Kerry, and then, in contrast – cue the happy music—George W. Bush. The cover email from Bush-Cheney campaign manager Kenneth Mehlman spelled out the “clear choice” before the voters: “pessimism and rage” versus “optimism, steady leadership, and progress.” A visual reference to MoveOn.org was included to justify the guilt-by-emotional-association tactic.

On June 25, subscribers to the email list of John Kerry received a message from campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, with “Disgusting” in the subject line. The letter called on the Bush campaign to take down the video. The Kerry campaign was on its final push to raise money before the June 30 reporting deadline of the Federal Election Commission. A box at the top of the cover letter contained a hyperlink with the word “Contribute” in red letters and, in black boldface, the sentence “You’re our only line of defense against these underhanded tactics.”

Cahill’s letter asserted that “The use of Adolf Hitler by any campaign, politician, or party is simply wrong.” Hours later, Mehlman and crew jumped on the blanket assertion. “We Agree, It’s Disgusting,” read the subject line. The Bush campaign letter pointed out that, among other Democratic transgressions, Al Gore had referred to Republicans as “rapid response digital Brown Shirts.”

One could conclude from this episode that the Internet gives vent to our basest instincts, that there are no standards of decency, priorities, and truth in cyberspace. That may be true. But the campaigns did not do anything here that hasn’t been done in other media. Invoking Hitler as the personification of evil has been a pop culture practice for decades. Hypocritical attacks and drive-by distortions have been commonplace in campaigns for even longer. (So are last-second dirt bombs stuffed with scandalous information. Be ready this November.)

What’s new, and distinctive, about listserv campaigning in its early flowering is how often strategy is part of the message. Whereas traditional direct mail dwells on emotion, email traffics in insider information. In both channels, the senders know their core audiences: older people devour direct mail at home, boomers and young people check email at work and school.

The Hitler dust-up did not last long. By July 5, the Bush campaign was warning its listserv readers to expect and discount a Kerry rise in the August polls. The next morning, the Kerry campaign gave its readers a momentary scoop on the name of the Vice-Presidential pick. (And just for the record, the real scoop belonged to someone calling himself/herself “Aerosmith,” who posted notice on an aviation blog the night before that he had noticed “John Edwards vp decals being put on engine cowlings and upper fuselage” of Kerry’s 747.”

By the afternoon, the campaigns were dueling over the political allegiance of John McCain, with Bush previewing an ad in which the Arizona Senator endorsed the President, and Kerry assembling clips from previous years in which McCain criticized the President and praised the Democrat.

Der Führer might make another guest appearance in the listserv wars, of course. But the national discourse won’t really suffer unless he becomes the talk of the blogs, discussion groups, and personal email correspondents. That would be an indication that Americans were paying attention to Hitler’s ideas, and not just his tactical utility in a presidential race.