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The electronic handshake

Electronic campaigning, even the unsolicited variety, a big part of 2011 governor’s race

A few years ago, before iPhones and BlackBerries gobbled up the mobile phone market share, Bill Luckett and Willie Nelson found themselves in Clarksdale for a meeting of a company’s board of directors on which they both sat.

The meeting over, Luckett walked Nelson to his tour bus to see him off. Before he left, Nelson told Luckett he was interested in playing at Ground Zero, a blues club Luckett co-owns with Morgan Freeman.

“He got on his bus and I thought that was that,” Luckett said. “I figured he was just being nice.”

Nelson was serious, but Luckett’s unfamiliarity at the time with his Nokia cell phone nearly blew the whole thing. Luckett didn’t know what the voicemail symbol at the top of his phone’s display screen meant, so he handed it to his son. The mystery unraveled, Luckett eventually heard a voicemail from Nelson saying he wanted to set a date for the country music icon to play at Ground Zero.

Bill Luckett

Bill Luckett

“I didn’t even know that phone had voicemail on it,” Luckett said last week.

How times have changed.

His campaign for governor entering its second year, Luckett, a Democrat, is the main attraction in a multimedia campaign that features the use of every social network and electronic avenue available to get his message across. He Tweets, on average, several times a day, and updates his Facebook page at about the same rate.

Hours before the end of 2010, he sent an e-mail blast urging recipients to donate however much they could so his campaign could meet its year-end online fundraising goal. Some of those who received the e-mail had signed up to do so. Others had not.

Dave Dennis

Dave Dennis

Therein lies the balancing act political campaigns have to pull off: Candidates have to use every available method to spread their message, even if it means filling up inboxes with unsolicited e-mails and running the risk of annoying the people who decide their fate.

E-mail addresses are easily bought from third parties who compile databases, and campaigns eagerly snap them up.  Unlike mass, unsolicited e-mails advertising a commercial product, political messages are considered speech, and are protected by the First Amendment. There is virtually no restriction on who candidates, or their committees, can email, or how often they can e-mail them.

“We have e-mail addresses of as many people as we can get,” Luckett said. “It’s comprised of contributors, people who have expressed interest or supported us one way or another, people we just meet or have business cards for. It’s not just a list made willy-nilly.  It has some element of inclusion to it. We do some occasional e-blasts, but nothing that’s every other day.”

Luckett, whose campaign e-mails include an option for a recipient to opt out of receiving them, understands that option is exercised more often than he’d like. And as a businessman whose inbox is constantly packed with unsolicited business proposals, he can empathize with any frustration voters may experience.

Johnny Dupree

Johnny Dupree

“I get to an annoyance point like everybody else, but also there’s almost like an expectation that you’ll receive (unsolicited e-mails). I certainly don’t want to annoy anybody. I’m sure people have different levels of tolerance. If we hear from somebody, we’ll certainly stop sending to that particular person. But honestly, this sort of thing is an absolute necessity to communicate with the 35-and-under crowd. It’s something you better get used to doing as a candidate, and if you’re not you’re going to lose out.”

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, agrees.

“To see this new generation creating a new media, I am not about to be left behind,” he said during an interview at his Capitol office last week. “I think we all crave information. It is an easy way not only to receive but get information out.”

Like Luckett’s, Bryant’s electronic missives include an opt-out for its targets. Outside of a legislative session, Bryant averages one e-blast every 10 days. As of last week, when the 2011 legislative session began, that pace had yet to quicken.

Phil Bryant

Phil Bryant

“A lot of people, folks from all over the state, tell us they enjoy getting the video updates, either from our political website or the official website, through email and all of that,” Bryant said. “It’s just giving them information, whether it’s about my campaign or about what’s going on with the office. They can always say they don’t want to receive it anymore. It only takes a second to look at it and delete it. I just hope there’s a greater good where some people receive it and it answers a question they may have had or clears something up for them. That’s the intent.

“If you’re going to vote for a candidate, you need to know as much as you can about his political philosophies and his ideas,” Bryant continued. “You need more than just a push-card.”

Of the three men most political observers expect to mount the most serious run at the Governor’s Mansion, only Gulfport’s Dave Dennis, who is seeking the Republican nomination, has not yet used mass, unsolicited e-mails to separate himself from the pack.

“In any statewide election, it would be unlikely that you would at some point not use them,” he said. “Very unlikely. We have not yet, but I’m certainly not going to preclude that. It’s just not realistic. The idea is to keep people informed of your travels, your thought process behind your policy positions and your vision. “

Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said the surprise e-mail from a political candidate has become as much a staple of elections as a push-card left on a windshield at a county fair.

“People now are 24-hour-a-day creatures,” Wiseman said. “As much as you can, you want to have a presence with that person. The more you can reach out and touch somebody and give them some information about you, the better. You’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish if you don’t do it.”

To go with the risk of falling behind the propaganda arms race, Wiseman said, candidates who don’t take advantage of electronic campaigns give the appearance of steering cash-poor ships with no hope of staying afloat.

“Shaking hands just won’t work anymore,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because I think that’s the best way.”

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About Clay Chandler

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