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Election tech: Upstarts like 'tea party' have an edge

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“Every generation has seen a dramatic disruption of the political process due to technological change,” says Brooklyn Law School’s Jonathan Askin, who served on the ‘08 Obama tech task force. History has shown, he says, that the disenfranchised with the least to lose and the most to gain by getting a message directly to the people are those who dig into the potential of new technologies and show what else they can do. And so, he points out, “radio promoted FDR’s agenda; TV helped elect Jack Kennedy; pamphleteers fomented the American Revolution and helped to springboard new parties.”

In each of those cases, says "Netroots" author Matt Kerbel, the establishment politicians underestimated and therefore underutilized the potential of the new technology. FDR’s opponents largely viewed radio as a wireless telegraph, good for blasting out speeches and information. “But FDR grasped the intimate nature of the medium and transformed it into a one-to-one conversation between him and the American people, something nobody before him had really done,” he says. John F. Kennedy intuitively mined the power of television to deliver his personal charisma. “He understood it was not just radio with pictures,” says Mr. Kerbel.

While President Obama has gotten high marks for his grasp of social media in ‘08, “it was really the 2004 Howard Dean campaign that showed what might be possible in a medium where the price of entry is so low. The Dean campaign did it by accident, Kerbel says. “The Internet really found Dean … not the other way around. He had such a small campaign staff and organization he wasn’t in a position to exercise top-down control over his Internet support, and that was actually the reason his Internet organization grew so effectively" that it signaled the potential of the new digital medium.

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