Jerry Brown Meets the Voter of the Future

Friday, November 2, 2012

As his Proposition 30 hangs in the balance, California Gov. Jerry Brown continues an old-fashioned barnstorming campaign in its support.

But a recent encounter with potential voters in Southern California reveals that the challenges to the governor’s efforts are as much the media as the message. Specifically, voters are getting harder to reach through traditional “channels” (in this election, this has also been a problem for pollsters struggling to gauge public sentiment in a world transitioning from land lines to cell phones).

Speaking with folks at a coffee shop in San Diego during his Prop 30 tour, Brown asked whether they even knew about the measure.

Several patrons did not.

The governor followed up with a telling question: “Do you watch TV?”

When one woman in the group responded that she didn’t, Brown – as reported by The Los Angeles Times – “seemed exasperated.” He fired back: “That’s the problem. How do you reach the non-TV voter?”

Brown’s reaction shows an intriguing misunderstanding of the fundamental change underway in American viewing habits, but also demonstrates a fading view of how to influence opinion.

The way we watch television today – when we do – has become increasingly segmented and individually determined. When the governor won his first statewide election in 1970 (California’s Secretary of State) the top television shows were All in the FamilyThe Flip Wilson Show and Marcus Welby, MD. Because of the minimal channel-choices available to viewers in those days, advertisers could guarantee reaching nearly half of all television sets in the country. In today’s world of hundreds of channels, advertisers – including political ones – are likely to see only half that number for even the top shows.

Even more connected to the declining power of particular programs to deliver large audiences to political candidates is the unprecedented power of viewers to determine when and how they watch what can only loosely be called “television”.  Perhaps Gov. Brown would have been less surprised by the San Diegan’s response if he had seen the recent polling quoted in the New York Times, which found that “31% of likely voters had not watched television ‘live’ — that is, at the time it was being broadcast, as opposed to online or on a recording device — in the previous week.”

Recorded television and individually downloaded shows online allow viewers – and voters – to virtually eliminate television advertising.  This, in turn, is changing the way political campaigns treat their media buys. As Darrell M. West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution opines in the same NYT piece:

“This will likely become the first truly digital election because so many people are not paying attention to live TV.” Campaigns are responding by targeting voters online through new “channels” from social media sites to highly sophisticated targeted email programs. The Obama campaign has become particularly expert in this, but as one of Romney’s senior digital strategists offers, “Our system is getting smarter every day as we learn more about these users.”

Getting back to Prop 30, which per the most recent Field Poll has a tottering 48% support, Brown’s idea that California’s governor can “educate” voters through 30-second television ads illustrates another challenge to politics in 2012. The vast majority of political advertising monies still go into television ads, but this may be more of a benefit to agencies and television stations than to the campaigns themselves. Particularly in advertising for propositions, most Californians sense the overwhelming self-interest of the sponsors or opponents in commercials – if we can even find out who they are. A highly regarded political scientist here in the state once confided to me: “I make my voting decision on ballot measures purely by the list of opponents and supporters. The side I like and identify with – I vote for them.”

The saturation of sound-bite advertising on ballot measures speaks to the need for a more deliberative process that helps inform voters to the real trade-offs involved in each measure. As I have written before, this is why I’m very intrigued by Oregon’s Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR), which not only convenes a “jury” of randomly selected citizens for a period of several days to learn about and “vote” on the measure they’ve studied, but it also itemizes the major arguments – for and against the proposition – that influenced their decision. This information goes into the ballot pamphlet to offer a “citizen’s view” of the measure.

Also helpful: the growing number of independent information websites providing balanced information on ballot measures. From California Choices’ excellent endorsement matrix to California Common Sense’s comprehensive overviews to the interactivity of the Living Voter Guide’s Pro/Con “Post-It” platform, which invites voters to write their own arguments about the ballot measures, there has never been more non-biased information about our propositions.

My guess is Gov. Brown’s political consultants are familiar with all these dynamics, but that information has not yet trickled up.

In the aforementioned San Diego exchange, Brown proposed his fallback approach to the “non-TV voter”: “Maybe an ad on rock ‘n’roll radio,” he said. Unfortunately for the governor, just as in television, online music streaming platforms like PandoraSpotify, and Rdio (with Apple rumored to launch in early 2013) allow users to pay for music without advertising.

With time running out on the election, is there time for a Plan “C”?


Pete Peterson is executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership