Saturday, June 19, 2004

American Candidate (Showtime): Scamming the Sham

It’s a plot! A scam! A dastardly plan to hijack the sham!

THEY are trying to take control and the TRUTH is …

… the truth is they are doing what they always do, and flaws in Cutler's design are making it possible.

Joe Trippi may not think Cutler's hand-picked candidates are "worried about special interests," but organizations related to several of the candidates are showing them some very "special interest." And since Cutler still has been unable to really get his candidates interacting online or in public with sizable audiences who end up wanting to vote based on interaction, the "special interests" may well be skewing the votes.

Want to know what's going on? Ask yourselves a few questions.

When the Keene rally and gatherings were small, and the press conference in Allentown even smaller,

When the flyers handed out in Keene contained candidate phone numbers for voting rather than the issues,

When the press got candidate bios in Allentown, but the public did not,

When "whirlwind stops" and AmCan secrecy meant people in the towns themselves didn't even know what was happening, much less folks in the entire states, and

When AmCan's Internet sites offer next to nothing about these candidates …

Just how did all the people who voted for candidates in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania decide who they were going to vote for?

They didn't get the information from the press covering the events or trying to talk to the candidates. (According to one report in the Keene Sentinel an "invitation only" press event after the rally never occurred)

Most of the print and TV press coming out Keene didn't even list the candidate's names, and the opinions offered of the candidates from people who did get to talk to them indicated Keene residents were largely unimpressed. And I somehow doubt all of New Hampshire was reading the articles in the Union Leader and the Keene Sentinel within the short time they had to vote.

In Allentown, even after a press conference where the press was given the seats and the public, small as it was, was told to stand back behind the film crews, the news reports coming out were very brief and very general. Most repeated the standard press AmCan has been giving out for months, and gave almost nothing about the candidates or their issues – unless you count their names and the phone numbers to call. The press conference didn't even rate a brief mention in the "color" segments of the evening news outside the small area surrounding Allentown.

Anyone who might have tried to check out the candidates before voting also got darn little information from American Candidate's online sites. In my last entry, I told you that I've been unable to find a single message board post from any of the remaining eight candidates.

In addition, of the eight, five of them had AmCan webpages appear in the middle of the night just before filming began, and obviously had little time to spend on those. They contain almost no substantive information for a voter to base a decision on.

Lisa Witter is leading the campaign diary race amongst the five with a paltry two diary entries posted the night her webpage went active, one of which is only three sentences long. Keith Boykin and Chrissy Gephardt have only posted one entry each – and both of those also were written right after their campaigns went public. Joyce Riley and Jim Strock have never bothered to post entries.

The remaining three candidates who actually had webpages before they announced their candidacies – Malia Lazu, Bruce Friedrich, and Richard Mack are faring no better. Lazu has five entries in her diary, and the latest two are from her campaign manager. One is a standard and general "Why Malia is running for president," while the other is a brief note about her first "test" and a copy / paste of a news article. Richard Mack and Bruce Friedrich have no entries posted.

Mack (or AmCan?) did visit his page, though, and finally made the effort to remove the entry directing readers to his Mack For Governor webpage. Well done! Perhaps we can now convince Mack to actually use the AmCan webpage!

And yeah, I'm being sarcastic in that last bit, but there is a point to even that. The public is not getting quality interaction from the candidates on these "whirlwind stops" (on to Charlottesville next! Another two day quickie!). Yet, "votes" are being tallied in each state to determine who moves on and supposedly reveal to us who we think, out of Cutler's choices, is the best choice.

But, given the situation I've been describing, how the heck are people choosing? How is this engaging people in the political process in new and valuable ways? How are people able to look at all the candidates and make informed decisions based on the "vision" Cutler and American Candidate say these candidates have, or their passion, or their grasp of the issues?

I have one answer for you. They can't.

And I have another too, one that undermines still more Cutler's original ideas for what American Candidate might be.

The special groups and parties associated with many of the candidates are getting the word out in these states by telling people to vote "party lines." I've done some checking, and this is happening.

When Cutler abandoned his original claims and hand-picked "activist" candidates with power bases already in place, he made it possible for this to happen, and his attempts at secrecy and the lack of interaction exacerbate the problem.

Where AmCan is reaching few and offering little information, groups associated with some of the candidates are reaching more people and telling them to vote. But, naturally, these groups aren't offering a balanced look. They're not encouraging the people visiting their websites, message boards or forums to look at all the candidates, nor are they telling them that on their e-mail lists. Instead, they're telling people the name and phone number of the candidate associated with that party or group.

To give only a few examples, the Libertarian Party has put its power behind Mack, who was running for governor of Utah on the Libertarian ticket. PETA has thrown its weight behind Friedrich. Multiple parties associated with the gay community are getting the word out about Boykin and Gephardt. And the radio shows and conspiracy theory websites associated with Riley are also calling their faithful.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "So what? That's what always happens in politics." But remember, American Candidate was supposed to be something different, something new. American Candidate was supposed to engage voters in a meaningful way. What's happening now is NOT what American Candidate was supposed to be.

Groups that normally would not gain a majority vote from the general public on a wide range of issues are trying to control who advances to the next round based on their own special interests. It's becoming a battle based on which group can get out more votes through the back-channels, and if it continues, the viewing public is going to be treated to a showdown between, say, the libertarian and the animal rights activist.

No need to know their ability to lead or inspire, their grasp of the issues the general public holds dear, or even their names. All you need to know is to dial 1-800-libertarian or 1-800-PETAguy.

It's another kind of sham – one Cutler might not have planned for, but a sham just the same. And Cutler's current American Candidate can't counteract it.

That convention by the other candidates, what one is calling a "big tent revival" for democracy, is looking better every day. At least they would have participants from all over the country – participants who've taken time to see beyond the standard party and "special interest" labels and gotten to know each other's views. Given their months of work already, I suspect those folks would provide a truer example of what democracy could and should be.

And if Cutler could get his web designers to do some work on the American Candidate site, even the public could have the chance to examine the stances, styles, and abilities of the convention candidates. All it would take is a simple search function added to the message boards that would enable readers to actually locate the posts candidates have made.

Imagine it. Having access to months of conversations and information directly from the candidates. Not missives from campaign managers, not carefully edited sound-bites from spin doctors, not notes filtered through the press, and not Cutler's carefully crafted take on politics. Real conversation from the actual candidates and real examples of how they interact with others and argue their issues.

Imagine meetups. Real ones, staged by the candidates in your area. Ones where you could truly meet the candidates without Showtime handlers telling you can't have a seat but you can stand in the back behind the press. And votes at those meetups, even if you don't have some sharks around.

Imagine all of it building to that convention, and a chance, finally, to make your choices for yourselves based on something real.

I like that idea; I like that story.