The whistlestop campaign tour has given way to the daily download, as the shape and pace of politics continue to evolve. In this new world, old media are easily bypassed.
This election year we're seeing a seismic shift in the way TV interacts with politics and politicians. After decades of setting the agenda -- influencing how campaigns operate, even defining the choices presented to voters -- television is being snubbed in the run-up to 2008. The Internet is stealing the thunder from television, forcing the networks to play catch-up.
So far, two Democratic candidates for the nation's highest office have chosen to announce their bids via the Internet. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton both streamed video on the Web, in essence becoming their own broadcasters for the moment, making a high-tech end run around old media.
John Edwards has run a cyber-campaign for months with a slick and "sticky" Web site (meaning it attracts repeat visitors and keeps them around longer) and a smart blog. He has held several Internet "town hall" events. Last week, johnedwards.com held a live online discussion of President Bush's State of the Union speech.
As tech-savvy campaigners move to cyberspace, it's up to the old-style media outlets to cover the election year in equally modern ways.
"How many delegates will be blogging from the floor of the convention in Denver?" David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief, asked rhetorically. Many more than we heard from four years ago, presumably. One goal of journalists may be to report on and keep pace with those blogs themselves.
It's fair to say the networks will want to create conversations with the audience in cyberspace to match those of the political parties and candidates.
For the 'real' people
Just as everyone now can be a publisher with his or her own blog, every candidate can become a network, streaming his or her point of view into cyberspace.
The effect, when viewed on YouTube or other video sharing sites, is remarkably effective and personal. Here are relaxed-looking candidates, popping up on our desktops, talking to us, as if one to one.
"I wanted to tell you first that I'll be filing papers today," Obama says on barackobama.com in a regular feature titled "A Message From Barack." The announcement was positioned as a courtesy to the real people, before taking it to Big Media.
"I am beginning a conversation with you, with America," Clinton says on her Web site, hillary clinton.com.
Forsaking the traditional soapboxes like NBC's Today, or a news conference from a home state that would get cable news coverage, or a visit to Oprah Winfrey's couch or even Jon Stewart's desk, these candidates are jumping directly to our laptops, handhelds, cell phones and desktops.
At the moment, eight senators and four representatives have said they are either running for president or thinking about it. How they might use the Internet to further their presidential aspirations remains to be seen. They should be employing tech whizzes, voting age or not, to get a jump on the competition.
Embracing new media
In the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton rewrote the rules of politics and media by playing saxophone on Arsenio Hall's late-night show in dark glasses, proving he was a party-hearty baby boomer. That appearance was hailed as a turning point for the then-underdog. It was a canny nod to younger voters, to the fringe groups and the disenfranchised. Now the other Clinton takes up the new-media torch.
"With a little help from modern technology," Clinton says in streaming video on her Web site, she'll hold regular Web chats through the campaign season.
Smartly sidestepping conventional TV -- and the financial and legal constraints on traditional campaign advertising -- the candidates will continue to force television to pick up video from the Web and run it "as is." (On CNN, the digital process was duly noted by an anchor vamping until the breaking news of the Clinton announcement could be downloaded and broadcast.)
What next? Regular chats and fundraising appeals via Apple iPod downloads? Wee-hours blogging from chatty candidates in their pajamas?