It was not the most auspicious start for Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who threw his helmet in the ring Tuesday for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. The skies were overcast, the camera angle on the Statue of Liberty from the park across the channel was askew, and his announcement––slated to go live on three cable news stations at 10 AM––was delayed while engineers worked out the kinks in the audio system.
Huntsman had chosen hallowed ground to launch his bid for the presidency, Liberty Park in New Jersey, where Ronald Reagan announced his challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980 using the same flags, the same podium position, and the same skyline in the background. Everything was the same except the crowd, which in this case numbered just over 100, if you count the groundskeeper.
Huntsman spoke for 23 minutes. The three cable news channels cut away after six. Reporters covering the event snickered when they were handed press credentials that misspelled the candidate’s name as “John” not “Jon”. (Later, they would smile again when campaign staffers directed them to a plane headed to Saudi Arabia instead of the press plane following Huntsman to New Hampshire.) A more weathered candidate might have been disappointed with the response. Instead, Huntsman told Time’s Mark Halperin it was a good “shakedown cruise.”
Making the TV Rounds
When he finished his speech, Huntsman walked 100 yards across the lawn for an exclusive interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News. Over the next 24 hours, he would also give exclusive interviews to NBC’s Today Show, MSNBC’s Morning Joe and ABC’s Good Morning America, not to mention all the local news stations in New Hampshire and South Carolina where he went to repeat his announcement immediately after.
All this is pretty much de riguer for candidates trying to establish themselves in a crowded field, and Huntsman has a harder task than most. A New York Times poll in April found 90 percent of Republicans say they don’t know anything about him. But the candidate’s announcement was remarkably subdued––he promised to “conduct this campaign on the high road” where “the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who’s the better American”––and his handshaking on the stump seemed more like a distraction, a bobber floating on the surface of the political pond above two swift undercurrents that will soon enough determine whether Huntsman is the next Barack Obama––or the next Wesley Clark.
The first is the traditional race for campaign cash: not the $50 or $100 friends wheedle out of friends to run for the state legislature, but the cash that comes from political bundlers who can be counted on to round up anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million apiece from well-off friends. On that front, the Huntsman campaign is looking masterful.
Already announced as supporters are Georgette Mosbacher, a big backer of George W. Bush’s two campaigns; John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley; Tom Loeffler, a former Congressman and bundler for both George Bush (twice) and John McCain; Peter Malone, a Massachusetts backer of John McCain’s 2008 campaign; Bill Stern, the powerful chairman of the South Carolina ports authority; and Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a Hillary Clinton backer in the 2008 primaries who became disillusioned with Obama and switched her support McCain in the Fall.
The first rewards of that fundraising effort came less than 10 hours after Huntsman entered the race when Lady de Rothschild hosted a fundraiser in New York Tuesday night that netted the campaign $1.2 million. The next day, Huntsman met behind closed doors with Republican bundlers in South Carolina, and the campaign announced that former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, Illinois Manufacturer Assn. President Greg Baise and financier David Herro will host a fundraising luncheon for Huntsman in Chicago this coming Wednesday. Twelve more events of like stature are scheduled in the next month, enough to catapult Huntsman forward into second place in the money race behind the man he hopes to knock off, Mitt Romney.
Mindshare in the Public Arena
The second current running through the 2012 presidential race is a nebulous quest for mindshare in the public arena. Not surprisingly, it is taking place mostly on the Internet. Internet websites, Facebook friends, Twitter accounts and DONATE buttons that will sell you everything from bumper stickers to dinner with the president are standard fare in politics––and were long before Barack Obama mastered the medium (as it existed in 2008).
In the intervening years since Obama’s victory, however, it is not enough to just have a webmaster. Every campaign this year has to have a whole appendage to its operation churning the Internet channels looking for ways to connect with voters, and so far none seem all that effective. None at least until Huntsman entered the fray under the tutelage of wily old campaign strategist John Weaver and his media consultant Fred Davis.
The Candidate Who Rides a Motorcycle To Relax
In the days leading up to Huntsman’s announcement, Weaver and Davis peppered the net with a series of short videos teasing the arrival of the candidate. They featured a lone cyclist riding a dirt bike across a panoramic vista of buttes and canyons in the West. “Did not become famous with his band Wizard” the on-screen text in the first teased, a reference to the band Huntsman joined when he dropped out of high school. “Has seven children, one from India, one from China” added the second, notching a plug for his 28-year marriage, five natural children and two adopted girls. “The candidate who rides motocross to relax,” said the third, now all but singing hosannas to the arrival Jesus Christ, Supercyclist in the Republican race.
The teaser videos culminated in a full 3-minute video biography (voiced by Brian Dennehy and, let it be noted, starring an actor wearing Huntsman’s biking outfit) that appeared on Huntsman’s campaign website, Jon2012.com, just ahead of his announcement.
The website itself was described by CNN as “sleek, modern and, according to campaign officials, very iPad friendly.” People who sign up as Facebook friends can see their picture in a large front-page map of the United States. The candidate biography is a timeline-based flow of old photos of Huntsman growing up in various parts of the world. Everything about the site says tech savvy.
And the site is conspicuously video heavy. A section titled “HTV” opens with 27 videos of the candidate and his wife, including four biography pieces and interview clips where, in two minutes, Huntsman gives his opinion on everything from his opinion of Medicare to his preference for street vendor food.
“We’re trying to surpass the gold standard set by the Obama campaign,” Weaver told The Atlantic’s Nancy Scola at the launch event. “The goal is to cut through the clutter of politics and commercial enterprises.” Added Davis, “We wanted to have an enormous presence from day one. Bigger than anything out there, even the president.”
New Media Landscape
Whether Weaver and Davis succeed in their quest, their approach to Huntsman’s campaign signals a new role for political videos on the Internet in response to the changing nature of mass media.
Network coverage of a campaign is not the Holy Grail it once was. The big news operations don’t have the airtime or the resources to cover today’s extended campaign, or the multiplicity of candidates who are in it. Instead, they have left the day-to-day coverage to the cable news channels who have swallowed politics whole, devoting endless hours to in-studio commentators chewing over the minutest details of the race. So campaign operatives who want to get their message on the air have to choose their options wisely. While the challenge of past campaigns was to get the broadcast news crews into the room when the candidate had something important to say, the challenge today is to keep out all the embeds and trackers with “Macaca-cams” taking down all the things he didn’t want to say.
A campaign manager who wants to define his candidate for the voters––or even harder, introduce an unknown commodity––has limited ways to do that. If money is no object, paid television commercials can do the trick. But money is always an object. The soft sofa of morning news shows lets a candidate comfortably ease his way into the homes of voters, and the hard glare of Sunday news shows allows him to show his toughness in the face of adversity. But those opportunities are few and far between.
It used to be presidential candidates saved up their best stuff for televised debates. An hour-long debate where candidates go one-on-one against each other over the issues was thought to be a good barometer of who had the mettle to be the best candidate. That was up until 2008, when Democrats staged 26 debates over the course of the primaries, and even the candidates lost interest in what the others were saying.
Talking The New TV Talk
The Internet is still uncharted water for political messaging, particularly political videos. Political junkies (among them, of course, the politicians) have taken to Twitter like ants on a jelly roll. If you can get your message down to 140 characters, you can spread it instantly to your social network and, with a little luck, have it re-tweeted into hundreds of others. Viral videos are not so easy to produce on the Internet (except, in too many cases, by accident) but they are the next frontier.
Conventional wisdom used to dictate that candidates should tailor their message into 8-second sound bites to get on the nightly news, That now seems ludicrous. On the Internet, a good YouTube length is a minute; and three to four minutes is a full-length feature. Political videos can be long commercials, short speeches (see Obama, Barack) or something else: a clever blend of music, image, tone and message like, for instance, the Jon Huntsman biography.
And they can be effective. The three dirt bike videos the Huntsman campaign released before the candidate’s announcement drew 85,000 viewers on Vimeo, not to mention countless replays on news broadcasts. Compare that to the 28,000 views Mitt Romney has gotten for the more conventional campaign announcement he put it up two weeks ago, and you can see how creativity in this new arena makes a difference.
George Stephanopoulos was skeptical when he first saw the motocross ad and he asked Huntsman about it on Good Morning America. “It’s to get people talking,” the candidate responded. “You throw up a corny commercial and it gets people talking and I think it achieved its intended purpose and now here we are––a day into it––and feeling pretty good about things.”
By putting video front and center on his website, Huntsman has broken new ground on the net. He’s not just using his website for organizing and fundraising, for rallying the troops and distributing event schedules, posting up favorable articles and knocking down unfavorable ones. Huntsman is attempting to use the Internet to persuade.
His medium is the short video vignette he’s hoping you will pass along, and his handlers are bringing modern professional video techniques to make the videos the kind of artful argument you’ll want others to see.The Huntsman campaign is not just re-purposing TV clips or kiting around embarrassing home videos of the opposition. It is attempt to invent as a new style of political campaigning, and it will have to continue to invent new ways to get it seen.
If it works, Huntsman’s standings in the polls will rise dramatically over the next three months––and he won’t be the only one doing it.