The theme for the midterm campaigns, which ended last night, was perhaps best portrayed in an Oct. 18 snapshot taken on an LSU game day two weekends before the open primary.
It was of U.S. Senate candidate Bill Cassidy schlubbing around his front yard near campus in sandals, an oversized T-shirt and scarlet gym shorts. He carried his infant grandchild in one hand and held the dog’s leash in the other — clearly a day off for the GOP candidate challenging three-term incumbent Mary Landrieu.
Meanwhile, more than 100,000 football fans were tailgating a short walk away.
He was following a national Republican strategy that forced Cassidy out of his wheelhouse. He easily is one of the most genuine individuals in politics, at least talking one on one. Instead, Cassidy gave wooden speeches to supporters at controlled events.
But he wasn’t the only candidate who limited access and relied heavily on Facebook and Twitter to rally supporters. Given Republican success in the midterm elections in Louisiana and across the nation, it seems likely that voters may have to wait quite some time to see a candidate dance the “wobble” again.
Cassidy eventually held an LSU tailgate, but few attended; press had to be credentialed and sign up in advance.
Otherwise, and this is particularly true after the Nov. 4 open primary, Cassidy stuck to events in small rooms stuffed with fans. He accepted the endorsement of a national anti-abortion group, while his staff ejected a Democratic Party tracker. He rallied with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, in a bar where most of the audience needed tickets to attend. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, spoke before a handful of supporters standing, for the most part, in a small room on the Lamar Dixon Expo campus that also was hosting a couple of much larger events, including a gun show.
Cassidy’s chief political strategist, Joel DiGrado, worked for U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who perfected the indoor campaign in 2010 and thereby proved that in the new South, Yellow Dog Republicans — as in “would vote for a yellow dog before they would for any Democrat” — are OK with candidates who reach out to voters with Facebook postings, tweets and personalized emails, rather than eye to eye.
But the other side of all this emerging technology and scripted commentary is the reality that almost everybody now carries smartphones that include video recorders. Ask Mitt Romney, who saw his presidential victory float away when Mother Jones magazine released images of him telling supporters that 47 percent of Americans were takers and would vote for President Barack Obama because they believe “the government should give it to them.”
There is less worry that Cassidy would say something offensive but palpable concern that he might launch into some windy explanation that the base could take wrong.
“While he isn’t terribly charismatic, he doesn’t make many mistakes and doesn’t veer off message. Sadly, I think he is a far more interesting guy than the cookie-cutter Republican in his campaign,” said Kirby Goidel, a former LSU professor who’s now public policy professor at Texas A&M University. “He really does have an interesting record of public service suggesting a compassionate conservatism and a willingness to think outside of party lines that is sorely needed in the Republican Party and in Washington.”
Goidel’s book, “America’s Failing Experiment,” argues that, largely, social media, talk radio and partisan punditry reinforces rather than challenges prejudices. (Though polls show Congress is less popular than traffic jams, The Cook Report, which tracks political campaigns, identified only 25 of the 435 U.S. House races that were competitive.)
Some academics argue that low-cost social media empowers candidates by allowing for a wide range of new voices. But it also allows candidates to find and mobilize their own supporters without having to reach beyond the circle of people who already agree.
“Social media gives people a like-minded experience,” said Martin Johnson, an LSU professor in political communication. “It might be polarization, but we know it as sorting.”
Facebook, for instance, tracks what its readers look at, then suggests similar items. Democratic voters get stuff that reinforces their world view, and the same holds true for Republicans.
A future of controlled appearances and unquestioned messages via social media deprives voters of seeing how well candidates handle curveballs, of how they might react to issues and situations that aren’t in the forefront right now, Johnson said.
He added that if candidates “won’t debate and they won’t respond to reporters, how are they going to get asked about those things that are off their tick list? That presents some challenges to voters.”
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/ .