ANALYSIS: Political PR - Reform Party benefits from new media rules/Coming on the heels of Jesse Ventura’s gubernatorial victory in Minnesota last year, pundits are wondering who - if anyone - will emerge as a third-party presidential candidate. B

Last year, Minnesota jarred the country by electing a former professional wrestler governor. Adding juice to the jolt was the fact that Jesse Ventura was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

Last year, Minnesota jarred the country by electing a former professional wrestler governor. Adding juice to the jolt was the fact that Jesse Ventura was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.

Last year, Minnesota jarred the country by electing a former

professional wrestler governor. Adding juice to the jolt was the fact

that Jesse Ventura was neither a Republican nor a Democrat.



Now, as the 2000 presidential campaign approaches, many political

observers are wondering whether the whole country will experience a

similar shock.



Warren Beatty has publicly mulled running as an independent candidate

next year. Already, names such as Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump and Lowell

Weicker are cropping up as potential Reform Party nominees. Speculation

holds that Republican John McCain or Democrat Bill Bradley may set their

sights on the Reform Party nomination if their presidential nomination

campaigns falter.



On the plus side, the 2000 Reform Party nominee will not need Ross

Perot’s checkbook to be taken seriously because he or she will be

eligible to receive dollars 12.6 million in matching funds from the

Federal Election Commission.



The party is already on the ballot in 19 states, and its 1996 records

counted 1.3 million members.



New media environment



Another important element is the new media environment. Previous

communications innovations in this century were not productive initially

for third party candidates. Kenneth Campbell McKay noted in The

Progressive Movement of 1924 that Robert LaFollette’s managers

considered their opening campaign broadcast to be a bust when measuring

cost per listener.



Network television, of course, heightened the costs of running a truly

competitive national campaign. But the age of the Internet has arrived.

Phil Noble, publisher of online newsletter PoliticsOnline, argues that

if the advent of TV mortally wounded parties by allowing candidates to

appeal directly to voters rather than rely on party organizations, then

the Internet has been ’a shot in the head to the old-party system.’



Ross Perot’s 1996 running mate Pat Choate tells PRWeek that the

Internet, talk radio and cable TV could help an alternative candidate

spread his or her message without a huge investment. Today’s new media,

Choate says, can ’drive the cost down dramatically.



A candidate like Pat Buchanan can run a presidential race for as much as

a third of the dollars spent by the major candidates yet have nearly as

much reach.’



Noble says as long as a candidate like Beatty is treated seriously by

the news media (read: gets coverage) then ’all he has to do is look into

the news cameras and tell voters: ’If you like me, go to my web page.’

By doing that, like Jesse Ventura, the Internet can become the Intranet

of your campaign.’



The Internet can help the campaign communicate cheaply with volunteers,

even helping to organize the ballot placement drives in states. And not

only can the Reform Party nominee receive public campaign funds, but,

unlike the major party candidates, he can also do additional fundraising

online.



Ventura made effective use of the Internet in his upset. But other

factors contributed to his upset victory, and not all of those will come

into play in a presidential election. First, Ventura gained credibility

by appearing in an extensive series of debates. While the other

candidates proved to be typical politicians, Ventura’s unsophisticated

and direct approach set him apart. But a Reform Party candidate has no

guarantee of getting into a debate and one or both of the major party

candidates will probably try to keep him out.



Age of discontent



Ironically, Ventura may have been helped by running in good times, which

runs counter to prevailing political theories. ’The discontent that

existed,’ says Saint Cloud State University political science professor

Steve Wagner - co-author of We Shocked the World, which examines

Ventura’s election - ’was more with the particular candidates than the

parties or the government.’ Thus, voters felt safe taking a risk on

someone new.



Ventura media consultant Bill Hillsman concurs. Hillsman is actually an

anti-media consultant media consultant who criticizes the over reliance

on negative advertising by other consultants to drive voter turnout

down.



His campaign was bolstered by Minnesota’s same-day registration law,

which allowed a large contingent of same-day registrants to cast

ballots.



Ventura’s rise led his opponents to refrain from engaging in the

acid-tinged attacks on him that are more common in two-candidate races,

as they wanted to woo his swing vote. He continued to rise steadily in

the polls, offering voters a unique mix of socially liberal and

economically conservative policies.



As the Reform Party nominee, Ventura qualified for state public

financing which allowed him to air innovative advertising, such as radio

ads that said voters in 1860 discounted warnings that casting a vote for

Abraham Lincoln would be ’wasted,’ and encouraged Minnesotans to ignore

such prattle as well.



Hillsman argues that issues such as campaign finance reform can take

hold, particularly if the major party candidates are Bush and Gore, who

are tied to the big money givers of their parties. Experts have

pooh-poohed the appeal of reform issues before, but Hillsman thinks

there is a major constituency out there turned off by the excessive

partisanship and fundraising scandals that have occurred in

Washington.



Not all agree. Fred Yang of Garin-Hart-Yang Research (Washington)

suggests the anti-politician mood was much stronger in the early 1990s.

Now, the public feels a deeper dissatisfaction with a society losing

touch with its core values, an issue harder to express politically.



Limited appeal



While the public often expresses early support for third-party

candidates, experts say the desire becomes more muted when the choices

are better known. Buchanan and Beatty have bases tilted to the right and

left, respectively, notes political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. This

might limit their appeal.



Beatty, Trump and Buchanan can all deliver good sound bites, but none

have held office, a fact that still matters given that the race is for

the nation’s highest position.



Political scientist Dan Shea of Allegheny College, co-author of the

forthcoming book Political Parties in the Information Age, argues that

’the kids of the kids from the 1960s are being socialized to be

non-partisans.’ Odds are they will find their political preferences on

the Internet, which Noble predicts may help to spawn more third parties

in the future. Citing the Perot precedent, he suggests that the public

has long been ready for a more diverse party system.



Ready or not, the public in the Internet age may find their wishes

fulfilled.



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