By Richard Lee
In the 21st Century, political campaigns have more technology at the fingertips than at any time I history.
Yet retail politics continues to play a major role in today’s campaigns.
Over the summer, New York gubernatorial candidates Kathy Hochul and Lee Zeldin crisscrossed the state, meeting voters at parades, fairs, rallies and even the beach.
So why is personal contact with the electorate still important when campaigns have the technological ability to reach thousands of voters in real time?
The truth is Americans remain infatuated with spectacle and pageantry. It’s why watching a football game from the 50-yard-line is more exciting than watching the contest from your living room couch. Or why a four-hour Bruce Springsteen concert beats listening to E Street Radio in your car. Or why experiencing Hamilton on Broadway is not the same as viewing the musical on Disney Plus.
The roots of America’s infatuation with spectacle and pageantry date back to the 1800s. Before the advent of mass media, options were limited for those who wished to actively engage in the political process.
“Much of political life was necessarily acted out in the streets,” historian Michael McGerr wrote in The Decline of Popular Politics. “However undemocratic the results, American politics from roughly the (eighteen) ‘thirties to the ‘nineties demanded the legitimacy conferred by all classes of the people through parades and rallies and huge turnouts.”
But why is retail politics still so effective?
Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan offered one explanation in her book What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era.
“Speeches are not significant because we have the technological ability to make them heard by every member of our huge nation simultaneously,” she wrote. “Speeches are important because they are one of the great constants of our political history. For two hundred years, from ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ to ‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ they have been not only the way we measure public men, they have been how we tell each other who we are.”
So as the gubernatorial contest kicks into high gear after Labor Day Weekend, the Hochul and Zeldin campaigns are likely to continue to make use of the most up-to-date technology tool available. But you’re also likely to find them out on the road meeting voters because technology has not replaced the value of a shaking someone’s hand or looking them straight in the eye.
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, covered politics and government as a reporter and later served as Deputy Director of Communication for two New Jersey governors. To read more of Lee’s ‘”On the Road to Albany” columns, follow the Jandoli Institute on Twitter and Facebook.