In 2004, John Kerry spent so much of his advertising budget on broadcast-television warhorses like Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune that he at least deserved a wardrobe courtesy of Botany 500. George W. Bush threw millions at TV too (he favored Cops and JAG), but his ads also appeared on cable, talk radio, blogs, the Internet and, in several cases, closed-circuit televisions above health-club treadmills. "We took one message and designed lots of different avenues to communicate it," says Matthew Dowd, Bush's chief strategist in '04. "They took a lot of different messages and drove them all into one big funnel."
So there you have it. The 2004 election was won because Democrats bought lots of vowels and Republicans used the kinds of marketing techniques employed by smart companies trying to sell consumers a product--in 1998. "Even when they innovate, the parties are always a good five or 10 years behind commercial marketing," says Bill Hillsman, an advertising consultant who created famously roguish campaigns for Jesse Ventura and Ralph Nader. "They're cautious organizations. They can't change their natures." But before we go too far down the politicians-are-so-lame road, it's worth noting that every once in a while, there's a signal moment, like Bill Clinton on Arsenio, when candidates catch up to the communication culture. With the viral success of the Dean campaign and the echo chamber of blogs, the 2004 cycle was full of such moments. In 2008, be prepared for the next stage, a combination of encounters with the future and the past. And what they will have in common is a personal touch. "From now on," says Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ken Mehlman, "a smart candidate will reach you through your cell phone, your friends, the organizations you belong to and the websites you visit.''
That means no more avalanches of TV ads. "By 2008, 35% of all television viewers and 50% of registered voters will have digital video recorders," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network (NDN), an advocacy group that introduces Democrats to new-media strategies--or tries to anyway. "And 100% of them will skip political ads. So we'll have to talk to people in smarter ways." The easiest people to talk to are those who want to listen, so a few years ago both parties started coaxing as much personal information as they could out of donors and party members. The Democrats gave their database of roughly 6 million people an awesome name: Demzilla. The Republicans' has less flash but more e-mail addresses (Mehlman puts the tally at 15 million) and Laura Crawford.