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Opinion: Let's hear it for campaign billboards of past elections

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One of the things I wait for each election cycle is the chance to see how the various candidates sell their messages. Each year brings new techniques in spreading the news of the campaigns.

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I've read that President Obama had an incredibly broad electronic messaging campaign structure, so that thousands upon thousands of people could be reached and could reach others in a matter of minutes. It sounded a little bit like the old telephone trees that schools sometimes used to get blizzard-closing and late-start or early-dismissal information spread among the students and parents -- that sort of phone tree, but with a speed-of-light component.

Nearly all of the current campaigns have Web pages with varying amounts of information on the candidate and the issues. Many recent campaigns have made at least some attempts to use blogs, a way to put a personal touch on the politicking and, I suppose, show that the candidate is hip and on the edge of things. Officeholders, too, have been using blogs now and then, to talk about the issues of the day and to give citizens a chance to talk with their fingertips. Twitter and Facebook and the other socalled social networking outfits get a workout, too, and I'd guess those sorts of things will only grow in years to come.

In fact, I'd guess that I haven't a clue what medium a politician might use to get out a message a decade from now. Back in journalism school in the early 1960s, I was in a class that discussed a guy named Marshall McLuhan, who said the medium is the message. Whatever that meant half a century ago, I suspect it will mean something entirely different in coming years.

It's a far cry from the first campaigns I covered as a political reporter. The hottest new thing on the market back in the early 1970s was an unusual billboard. Come to think of it, I remember when former U.S. Sen. Jim Abdnor became almost giddy as he described a new billboard his campaign was employing in his run for the U.S. House. Abdnor, a Lyman County kid who served as a state legislator and lieutenant governor before taking the leap to national politics, lost his first bid for the U.S. House in 1970. He won two years later, and in 1980, he defeated the incumbent Democrat, Sen. George McGovern, and served a term in the Senate before losing to Democrat Tom Daschle.

I traveled with Abdnor for campaign stories the first time he ran. I remember how crushed he was to lose a Republican primary, especially after all of the people on all of the streets he walked while I was tagging along came up to him and said they were voting for him. I also remember that primary election day was a pretty good day for farming in South Dakota, and Abdnor later said he figured a bunch of his people thought he had the election in the bag and decided to get some field work done.

I don't know if that's so, but it made about as much sense as any other explanation I heard.

Anyway, Abdnor's loss helped open the way for Democrat Jim Abourezk to win a House seat. Two years later, 1972, Abourezk decided to run for Republican Sen. Karl Mundt's open seat, and Abdnor took a second shot at the House. He told me he was taking no chances, organizing grassroots groups in every corner of the state, making sure he had a powerful base of support.

The billboard that had him so happy was pretty simple, not much more than his picture with names of supporters covering every inch of his face. "Never saw anything like it before," Abdnor told me.

I hadn't, either. Whether it worked or not, he won that year.

Let's hear it for campaign billboards, huh?

Terry Woster's column appears Wednesday and Saturday in The Daily Republic. Miss a column? Check out www.mitchellrepublic.com.

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