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Blogger Breakfast

August 30, 2004

The credentialed bloggers were invited to a welcoming breakfast this morning. It was a pretty intimate affair: a little ballroom at the Southgate Hotel (across the street from Madison Square Garden) filled with four tables and a continental breakfast spread. Nearly all of the credentialed bloggers attended along with a handful of campaign staff. Elizabeth Weinstein from the Wall Street Journal and Drew Clark from National Journal’s Technology Daily watched from the back of the room.

The guest speaker was Matthew Dowd, Chief Strategist for Bush-Cheney '04. The New York Times described Dowd as follows:

Mr. Dowd, a dispassionate and cerebral 43-year-old, should know. He oversees polling, research, focus groups, advertising, targeting of important counties and much of the Bush campaign message itself. It was the role that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, played in the 2000 campaign, with Mr. Dowd as his pollster.

One of Mr. Dowd's most complex tasks is to manage the 10 advertising agencies and 5 polling firms that the most expensive re-election effort in American history has hired to try to ensure that Mr. Bush gets a second term. Polling is done weekly, Mr. Dowd said, but only in the 18 states that are considered competitive.

He was dressed in grey slacks, a blue blazer, and an open collared blue button-down shirt (he remarked “this is like wedding clothes for me”). A yellow 1-800-CALL-IDT lanyard held his convention credentials and campaign identification. He showed up about ten minutes before the start of the breakfast, and spent the few minutes before he spoke talking with an aide about some upcoming campaign ad buy (8 message states, 2700 points, etc.)

Dowd started with some brief remarks during which he highlighted a few strategic assumptions the campaign has about how November will play out. His main theme was that over the last five or six presidential elections (since1980/1984), the number of swing voters dropped significantly, from 25% to about 7%. Another way to think about it is -- 94% of voters made up their mind about who to vote for before the campaign ever began. In his words “This is why pushing low turnout (‘unmotivated’) Republicans is more important than any other year before.” He went on to say that blogs are an excellent tool for motivating and communicating with people who may feel disconnected from their process, despite their support for the President.

Dowd said that Bush campaign committed to using the Internet as a key component of their message and communications strategy early after the 2000 election. He noted “the changing nature of how people are receiving their communications (led by Internet, and evidenced by a drop in viewership of television commercials) makes the personalized nature of communications very important. He cited studies after the 2000 election that showed, for example, if someone if personally contacted about a political candidate, they are four times more likely to vote than someone who sees a TV ad or gets a piece of direct mail.

Dowd said the paid media of the Bush campaign (and the 2004 cycle in general) reflects this new model, and there has been much less emphasis on “spot” TV and a much heavier emphasis placed on cable advertising ($12-13 million spent to date), radio (3-4 times spent already on radio than spent in 2000), and the Internet. He was hesitant to fully endorse advertising online, however, noting that the ability to advertise effectively was very limited (see below for more). A “much better model for use of the Internet is what you guys do,” he added. “People want to access information, they aren’t as likely to sit on the couch and just receive advertising.” And that, in Dowd’s assessment, makes the Internet a more effective tool for campaigns to use in communicating.

On a side note, Dowd suggested that using the Internet could be a good way of replacing the model of going door to door to the door to door model. Traditionally, Democrats have had a lot of success with door-to-door canvassing (it is a major element of ACT’s strategy for example). Dowd suggested that it was much easier for Democrats to canvass because their audience is often concentrated in a single (read: urban) area. By contrast, Dowd noted, 85-90% of republicans do not live in a Republican precinct. In previous elections, they have not been talked to. This year, to turn out Republicans, the Bush campaign and the GOP are committed to going where these people live. But since the door-to-model will not work, communicating via the Internet is key.

So what does that mean in real terms? Well, at this same point before the 2000 election (August 2000), Dowd said the Bush campaign had 200,000 email addresses, which amounts to less than half a percent of the people they needed to reach. This year, they have six million email addresses, which in an election where 110-115 million people are expected to vote, represents about ten percent of the people they need to reach to win the election. For comparison purposes, the Dean campaign at the height of its popularity, had about 600,000 emails. And in a bit of a swipe at the Dean campaign, Dowd said the biggest mistake that campaigns make is that they “use the internet as the message, instead of delivering the message through the internet.”

Afterwards, Dowd took about a half-dozen questions (the handful that specifically relate to the use of the Internet I have written up below):

Q: The Internet has a tendency to be all over the place. In your opinion, has the message that has been put out by bloggers been focused?

Dowd: I think it has been going very well. Even outside observers would argue we are much more disciplined – at the grassroots levels, with our various headquarters, etc. We know exactly what we want to say about the President and about John Kerry and have been much much better than the other side. It is not perfect and there are always going to be times when things have get away from us. But, people have an inherent sense of what they want and how to communicate that. If everyone was 100% on message, it would seem manufactured. It is very important, after Thursday, that everyone puts this election in the context of competing visions, and what we want to do in the coming years, as opposed to an argument about what we have done to date. Bush has a record to defend his agenda, while Kerry does not.

Q: Can you expand on your comments from earlier about the limitations on online advertising? (I asked him that)

Dowd: There has to be a lot more research and information that online advertising works in the political process. I have not seen the research on the advertising that convinces me that it makes sense to spend a dollar there vs. spend a dollar somewhere else. We have tried it. We ran web ads featuring the First lady and an education message – on several sites including Ladies Home Journal, Parenting and similar. We had limited success. What we learned from pre and post polling, complete with control groups, was that it was extremely limited in changing people’s minds, moving them to a certain point of view at all. Part of it might be political advertising on the net, people might not be used to it, they may not want to see it, etc. Television advertising works because it is passive. People don’t seek out advertising – they see it while watching a football game or CSI. The Internet is different, its not passive.

Q: What is your confidence of using the Internet to motivate and inform the grassroots? For example, the NRA has one million fewer members than it did last election -– can the Internet replace that?

Dowd: I’m concerned that people’s associations with groups is dropping. People are becoming more individualized. Part of that is the Internet – the ability to get information in their home, in their office. So people are asking themselves, why do I need to be a member of the Kiwanis club, for example? There has been a drop in the socialized group, how people meet and talk in this country. The Internet is very important for reaching “Influentials” – the people who live next door to you, or who you work with. When you ask them “is this a good movie, or is this a good restaurant to go to when I’m in Austin. They are the 10-15% of people that lots of other people go to for information. And if they say no, this is not a good movie, you are probably not going to go. Influentials are over-represented on the Internet. 115 million people will vote this year. If you are talking 10-15%, that’s 10-12 million people (there is a large, dedicated group of hard-core Democratic influentials as well). If you can communicate with those people, you will have a much easier time than trying to reach the five people they talk to in their community one-by-one.

That was it.

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