By Joe Sheller / Media Column
A half-page advertisement appeared in the Sept. 13 edition of the Mount Mercy University student newspaper, The Times. It was direct in its message, and used a raised fist as an “o” in the all-caps headline: “BE A VOTER.”
The ad included the date of the coming midterm election, Nov. 6, a web address where young people could pledge to vote and the identity of the sponsor.
The ad was paid for by NextGen Climate Action Committee, a group associated with a liberal billionaire, Tom Steyer, who is also crisscrossing the country to promote the impeachment of President Donald Trump. I take it as a sign that the midterms will reflect our evolving media environment. And while the election will be over in just six weeks and a few days, I expect those trends to continue.
In the Corridor, we are seeing significant shifts in how politicians and political parties are interfacing with and influencing the media. Here are five trends to watch this election cycle:
1. TV ads, while still important, are not as dominant. Many people are tuning out from TV and into social media for a connection to the world. You can argue about whether that’s good or bad in this day of Russian influencers and other assorted internet trolls, but I still haven’t seen the “Daisy Girl,” “Swiftboat” or “Make ‘em Squeal” TV ad of 2018 yet. In both the First District congressional campaign and the race for Iowa governor, the TV ads have seemed oddly uncreative. Sometimes dark and sometimes biographical, there haven’t been many ads that stick out as defining this year’s election.
2. Media bashing continues to be a popular strategy. U.S. Rep. Rod Blum has taken a page from President Trump’s playbook in trashing the media, accusing, for example, KCRG of bias because he doesn’t think the station has reported enough on challenger Abby Finkenauer’s out-of-state funding. I don’t find Mr. Blum’s complaints compelling, but then again, I am a journalism professor. Whether the strategy means something to me, it does seem to be part of the fabric of our politics now to attack the messenger if you’re not happy enough with the message.
3. Voter registration efforts are targeting young adults as never before. Hence, the NextGen ad in the Mount Mercy Times. Young people traditionally eschew civic engagement, but maybe things will be different this year. I’ve seen NextGen volunteers several times on the Mount Mercy campus, and I’m sure they have been at other colleges in the Corridor; Radio Iowa recently reported the group is active on 29 Iowa campuses. Will young voters follow through and vote? We’ll see.
4. Money still drives media, and money will have a big impact on races here. NextGen is funded by a wealthy donor to Democratic campaigns, while out-of-state contributions have become an issue in the First District congressional race. Meanwhile, the Des Moines Register recently projected that the gubernatorial campaigns of Fred Hubbell and incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds will spend more than $6 million in TV advertising. TV ads may not have dominated this year, but they’re still big. And money is still the lifeblood of politics and media.
5.The presidential election of 2020 is already underway, and we in Iowa are featured in it. It’s one of the longest running and most successful media stunts of all time: the joint January Iowa caucuses that were created in the 1970s by Republicans and Democrats to boost the state’s media profile. And in August, there was the news that the 2020 election calendar currently being firmed up by the parties once again features the Iowa caucuses as the leadoff event.
The price we pay for going first is being overrun by out-of-state politicians for years in advance of every presidential election. But it also gives us as Iowans a voice we would not otherwise have, and is a nice economic boost to lots of small town diners around the state.
One other benefit of going first in the already-started presidential election of 2020: We’ll get to see if the trends evident in 2018 continue.
Joe Sheller is an associate professor of communication and journalism at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.