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Heading For Our Very First Zoom Election

One of the major candidates seems comfortable chatting virtually from his basement, while the other misses the "meatspace" of big rallies.
Screen Shot 2020-05-26 at 5.53.40 PM

Axios, the buzzy beltway blat, has given us a new meme for the upcoming election: “Zoom Moms.” As Axios put it, since the early days of the coronavirus crisis, “the share of Americans using video calls has swelled from less than half to around two-thirds.”

Moreover, according to Axios pollster Chris Jackson, the majority of those using the most prominent of these videoconferencing brands, Zoom, are women: “It’s middle- and upper-income women. Mothers particularly have a higher rate. It’s women under the age of 55.” These are, Axios concludes, “2020’s newest swing voters.”

One might be inclined to be wary of too-pat, too-user-friendly distillations of the Zeitgeist. That is, beware of marketers and memesters looking to summarize an election in one pithy phrase, in the way that the “angry white man” was said to have shaped the 1994 elections, or “soccer moms,” the 1996 elections, or “security moms,” the 2004 elections.

Yet undeniably, Zoom-type technology is reshaping American life. According to Zoom itself, the total number of daily meeting participants has soared from 10 million in December to 300 million in April. (We might note that total participants is not the same as unique individuals, as participants can participate multiple times.)

But another metric, reported by The Guardian, shows the boom of Zoom; the number of downloads for its software has, uh, zoomed, from 56,000 a day in January to 2.13 million a day in March. And of course, many other companies are also operating in the videoconferencing space, including such behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

In fact, the history of American elections can be told as the story of sequential media technologies affecting the outcomes. For instance, the 1800 presidential election was said to be a battle of partisan newspapers, as scribbling supporters of incumbent John Adams and challenger Thomas Jefferson lobbed sharp-penned “news” stories at each other.

By 1860, the cutting-edge medium was the telegraph, which enabled reports to fly fast across the country. Two years earlier, Abraham Lincoln’s strong performance in his senatorial debates with Stephen A. Douglas had quickly become nationwide news, turning Lincoln into a hero to abolitionist Republicans. Actually, the Railsplitter lost that 1858 senatorial contest, and yet two years later, of course, he won the presidency.

In 1932, radio was a major force, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, he of sonorous yet intimate tones, used it well. For that and other reasons, FDR won the ’32 election in a landslide; he went on to use radio to become a trusted friend to tens of millions, speaking warmly in his nationally broadcast “fireside chats.”

Then, in 1960, John F. Kennedy blew everyone away with his performance on television, especially in his debates with Richard Nixon. Not everyone actually liked JFK, but thereafter, anyone with national political ambitions knew that TV mastery was a must. By this reckoning, even Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, can be regarded, in television terms, as just another master of Kennedy’s favorite medium.

The next technological hinge came in 1988; this was a power-shift within TV, from broadcast to cable. This author, who worked for George H.W. Bush’s campaign, well remembers CNN playing a lead role in ’88 news, precisely because the channel led the news. That is, if CNN got its hands on a hot political story, it could run it at, say, 11 a.m., and then again at noon, and every hour thereafter, while the broadcasters couldn’t touch it till 6:30 or 7 p.m. (Meanwhile, the newspapers, of course, had to wait till the next morning, and the weekly magazines till the next week.)

In other words, CNN came to own popping political stories, and so presidential campaigns began organizing themselves around the breaking-news-oriented cabler, leaving broadcasters and newspapers looking slow and stale.

Then, of course, came the Internet. The Net was a big thing in 2004; the top social network, Friendster, proved its value as a hub for activists and small donors. Four years later, Barack Obama unleashed the full power of the Internet, first on Hillary Clinton, then on John McCain.

The big revelation of 2016, of course, was the power of Twitter. To this day, Donald Trump uses his tweets as a megaphone and, just as often, as a hammer. He seems little interested in scripted speeches and much interested, instead, in 280-character blasts. And if even half of his 80.2 million followers are real people, as opposed to bots or other fakes, he’s reaching an enormous audience with each tweet, dwarfing any other single medium.

Yet it should be noted that these technologies haven’t necessarily displaced each other; instead, they have layered on each other. Thus today we have newspapers and radio and TV and the Net.

And now: Zoom. In some ways, Zoom and its cognates seem to be the perfect technology for the lockdown era, since they combine the smart interactivity of the Internet with the visual impact of TV—and each individual can be a star, maybe.

Not surprisingly, new aesthetics-minded subcultures have emerged alongside this new medium, such as the Twitter site @ratemyskyperoom, which offers witty, sometime catty, verdicts on the optics of people’s personal “studios.”

Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out how to do a Zoom news show, and that inevitable development will be full of implications for earlier news formats.

Yet in the meantime, we can espy a distinct socioeconomic, as well as demographic, tilt to videoconferencing. As the Axios article noted, Zoom’s core user base is “middle- and upper-income women.” After all, it’s middle- and upper income people, of both genders, who are likely to be working from home, at a keyboard—and for them, Zoom is easy. By contrast, others, typically working with their hands, outside of the home, seem to find Zoom less congenial.

To be sure, the comfortable and the affluent, especially women, haven’t needed Zoom to help them decide they mostly don’t like Donald Trump, even as much of the working class long ago decided that it was with Trump, Zoom or no Zoom.

Indeed, an interesting look at the Trump political culture came from a May 21 story in Politico, as reporter Tim Alberta visited “Trump Tailgaters” in small-town Michigan. The takeaway: Trump supporters prize their physical space and movement; the frictionless ease of the virtual is less important to them. And the lockdown issue, of course, is a flashpoint, separating those who yearn to live free, outdoors, from those who prefer to stay safe, indoors.

This contrast in worldviews—the virtual vs. the analog, one might say—is accentuated by Zoom and reflected, as well, in political styles. For his part, Joe Biden seems happy enough in his Delaware basement, staying in touch, cyberspatially, with his supporters, while doing fine in the polls. In the meantime, Trump, sensing his underdog-ness, can’t wait to get back to big rallies, dishing red meat in what’s waggishly known as “meatspace.”

It’s possible, of course, that the Zoom Factor in the 2020 election will be remembered as just a coincident factor in the outcome, as opposed to a causative factor. That is, if Biden wins, maybe it’s because he was popular with Zoom types even before the pandemic. And if Trump wins, then maybe Zoom will be regarded as just one more filigree on centrist liberalism—that is, a new status ornament for Democrats, not an indicator of any large political shift that Trump had to worry about.

Yet still, Zoom is big enough that it is likely to affect elections. Beyond whatever happens in the November presidential balloting, Zoom’s influence will likely be felt in down-ballot contests.  Moreover, the vast majority of states still have their primary elections to come; it’s easy to see, for instance, that Democratic primaries in affluent suburbs are becoming Zoom-based battles.

Yes, in 2020, the conventional wisdom is converging on the idea that candidates must learn to use Zoom—or face the dire fate of being Zoomed.  And sometimes, conventional wisdom is proven to be correct.