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Technology changing the political landscape in Mississippi

Much like Internet-based technology has revolutionized social interaction, so has it changed the landscape of politics. Audio and video can be shot, uploaded and available for all the world to see within a matter of minutes. There is no such thing as privacy anymore. And political candidates would do well to heed that fact.

This year’s presidential campaigns have born that out. Sen. Barack Obama, who has sealed the Democratic nomination, has found himself the target of terse questions and glaring criticism over some of the sermons his former pastor gave after video of them appeared on YouTube. Republican nominee John McCain rejected the endorsement of a prominent Texas minister after he made disparaging remarks about the Catholic Church.

In short, the best way to avoid such entanglements is to act as if everything you say and do is being recorded.

“We’re in a video age,” said Brad Chism, president of Zata 3, a direct voter-contact company based in Washington. “Those things get under people’s skin.”

Chism was the keynote speaker last week at the Stennis Institute Capitol Press Luncheon, and he focused on the technological overhaul political campaigns are undergoing.

Chism’s company worked on behalf of interim Congressman Travis Childers during his race against Greg Davis.

Childers, the longtime Prentiss County Chancery Clerk, defeated Southaven Mayor Davis May 13 in a special general election and will hold the First District seat at least until the real general election in November.

The campaign got nasty. Davis’ camp tried to make some political hay with a video showing Obama urging voters to support Childers. It wasn’t long until a television commercial popped up with side-by-side pictures of Childers and Obama.

“There are no more winks and nods anymore,” Chism said. “You can’t say one thing and do another because almost everything you say is documented. Every candidate with an adequate budget has somebody tailing the opposition.”

And campaign budgets were a large part of Obama’s defeat of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Chism said. “Clinton, in the early going, decided to go after the Washington insiders and max them out (at $2,300). Obama didn’t do that. He gathered a large group of medium-sized donors and constantly went back to them. The single reason Hillary Clinton is not the Democratic nominee is fundraising.

“That changed the face of the race dramatically. In some respects, it lessens the power of the Washington insiders. Obama’s bottom-up mobilization was critical. Clinton went top-down with her fundraising and it killed her.”

The bottom-up model will be one that is copied and has the potential to burnish the chances of lower-tier candidates like nothing else has before.

“Television won’t drive elections as much,” Chism said. “The Internet, direct-mail, direct contact, that’s the future. It definitely levels the playing field.”

Chism hit on a lot of things that contributed to Childers’ victory over Davis, the first time a Democrat has won that seat since Jamie Whitten. Chism called Childers “the perfect candidate.”

Among the highlights:

• Childers’ small-town roots resonated with the district’s rural voters. “That worked in North Mississippi. The rural voters looked at Davis and DeSoto County and saw South Memphis. And even though he was a Democrat, Childers wasn’t out there advocating gay marriage. He ran on pocketbook issues.”

• Davis’ unleashing a negative assault on his primary opponent, former Tupelo mayor Glenn McCullough, was bad strategy. “That backfired. Bubba (the district’s rural voting bloc) has a pretty high BS detector.”

• Vice President Dick Cheney’s traveling to campaign for Davis didn’t help either. “When he left Washington, he said he was going to South Memphis,” Chism said. “That was a gift.”

• Davis further attempted to nationalize the race, even beyond Cheney’s appearance on his behalf. “When you try to tie the Rev. Wright, Barack Obama and Travis Childers together, there’s a disconnect,” Chism said. “Again, Bubba’s not stupid.”

• Childers’ main opponent in the primary, State Rep. Steve Holland, worked wonders once Childers had defeated him. “Steve Holland deserves a lot of credit,” Chism said, drawing a contrast between Holland’s unequivocal support of Childers and McCullough’s lukewarm endorsement of Davis once the Republican primary was settled.

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .


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