The famous 1960 Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon proved to be a turning point in electoral politics, bringing a candidate’s on-screen appeal into play as one of, if not the leading factor in their odds of being elected. Political Science majors are constantly reminded of this example from the first day of their freshman year, and political candidates are constantly reminded by the consultants and media-salespeople they do business with.
The upside to this revolution in campaign strategy is that a candidate gained the ability to reach a much wider audience than they could reasonably interact with in person. The down side, and the focus of my point today, is that a candidate’s personal wealth and/or network of wealthy friends became a barrier to potentially more well qualified but less well funded candidates, as television is the lion’s share of most campaign budgets. Well funded candidates gained the ability to paint any image of themselves they desire, only kept in check by the ability of other candidates to retort with equally expensive counter-ads. Incumbents gained significant advantage by their ability to fund raise from special interest groups that seek protection in the legislation supported by said incumbent.
Throughout the last 50 years, the “citizen legislator,” the small business owner and/or middle class congressman, has become an anomaly, as only the well heeled and well connected can raise funds in a primary election. The winds are changing however, as social media replaces traditional internet advertising, YouTube and Hulu replace cable TV, and the blogosphere replaces the traditional big-media. We have a long way to go in this process, but the 2010 primaries thus far have proven that a no-name candidate with a strong message can effectively build a following very quickly, and become competitive against the ensconced political class.
This brings me to Kerry Roberts in Tennessee’s 6th district. A CPA and bicycle store owner, and former Lipscomb University adjunct faculty, Roberts deals with the every day struggles of running a business, a small farm, raising three young children, and in the middle of it all running for U.S. Congress. In a district with three candidates that have built up war chests over more than half a million dollars each, mostly from personal wealth and previous political IOU’s, Roberts is making a real splash. He’s garnered disproportionate support in the major Tea Party and grassroots organizations, Republican Women groups, and quietly from a few county GOP chairmen. He’s won or performed exceptionally well in nearly every straw poll in the district, and shines in every candidate forum. His message is simple, if you need to fix a budget problem, you’re best bet is to call a CPA. If you’re going to solve an unemployment problem, you need someone that has directly created jobs by owning and running a small business. His disadvantage? He can’t call on decades of political networking and millions in personal wealth to fund his campaign. The solution? Kerry Roberts has made effective use of Facebook, Twitter, and particularly YouTube to demonstrate to voters that he has the strongest resume and most effective communication skills to represent the conservative voters of the 6th district. Kerry Roberts faces an uphill climb, but he’s a part of the changing face of politics, and it’s changing for the better!
(Kerry Roberts has mixed the old with the new, taking his 1956 John Deere 520 on a “Tractor Tour” of the district in Middle Tennessee. Read about the tour here!)