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Instant Response : High Tech Pushes Pace of Politics

October 06, 1987|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and EILEEN V. QUIGLEY | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — Four months after former Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. stood in a Claremont, N.H., kaffeeklatsch, defending his IQ and angrily exaggerating his college and law school records, another Democratic candidate addressed the Southern Legislative Conference in Little Rock, Ark.

"I have spent the last seven days, actually it seems like 70, in Iowa and New Hampshire," former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt told his Southern audience in August. As he continued his speech, complaining it would take 500 years to visit all the significant people in the small towns in Iowa, Babbitt realized he'd made a gaffe. Stopping in mid-sentence, looking chagrined, he stared directly into a television camera.

"Is this being televised?" he asked, quickly scrambling to apologize on C-SPAN, the cable network. "To all of those people out in Iowa and New Hampshire, I hasten to say I'll be back real soon."

Quick Thinking

Babbitt, thinking quickly, sought to minimize the damage. Biden, caught up in a whirlwind of controversy months later over charges of plagiarism, was sunk in part by a damaging video which recorded the New Hampshire gathering.

The lesson in both cases is that new technology is changing the face and pace of American politics. Video tape snippets from a variety of sources, played and replayed, can quickly turn kaffeeklatsches into political cyanide.

At the same time, new devices and techniques are becoming indispensable to candidates, consultants and the media.

Candidates, using satellites, can save costs and travel time by offering local appearances to television stations throughout the country. Specially selected groups of voters supplied with electronic measuring devices can keep score during debates, allowing the media to proclaim instant winners and losers. Special computer programs sorting donors into groups ranging from "Anti-Nuke Givers" to "Bedrock Republicans," help ensure no potential source of funds goes untapped.

"We've come light years in technology since the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign," said Paul E. Maslin, a leading Democratic pollster. "Everybody knows everything, and they know it within 24 hours."

Front-Loaded Calendar

"Technology allows the message to get out faster with a thousand times the impact," added David Garth, a veteran New York political consultant.

The new technologies fill a need created by the front-loaded 1988 presidential primary calendar and by threatened cutbacks in network television coverage. Some 21 states will hold primaries and caucuses on March 8, Super Tuesday, posing awesome challenges and costs for candidates, who cannot campaign adequately in person in all the states.

Satellites and improved video and computer capabilities afford candidates faster responses and the chance for greater exposure at lower cost.

Such developments are not welcomed by everyone. "With the speed of response, we have no time for deliberation, nor for talk which is the essence of the political process," said Gary R. Orren, associate professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "The volume of information that can be handled quickly has basically shattered time and space."

Candidates "will save a certain amount of money and wear and tear" using new technologies said Garth. "On the other hand, if they make a boo-boo, they haven't done a boo-boo in a closet. They have done it in a political global village. And if it has been done on television, it can be replayed and replayed and replayed as Joe Biden found out."

Nevertheless, with its potential for speedy thrust and counter-thrust, new technology has become bedrock to the 1988 presidential campaigns of both Democratic and Republican contenders.

Early this year, some presidential candidates began experimenting with new techniques. When Democratic Rep. Richard A. Gephardt debated Rep. Jack Kemp, one of his Republican presidential rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire, both candidates agreed to split the cost of booking time on a satellite. Pictures of the debate were beamed across the country to hundreds of local television stations and to a special room set up for political reporters in Washington.

When Babbitt and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV met in a debate in May, they too divided the cost of satellite time and fed their exchange to stations.

After the debate, Babbitt's staff used its phone bank operation to survey media markets with access to the debate. The informal survey revealed 12 out of 15 markets had used part or all of the debate.

Another time, Gephardt gave a major policy address in Iowa which was beamed by satellite to stations across the country. After the speech, he fielded questions from reporters at the stations carrying the feed.

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