Topeka Last weekend, Rep. Paul Davis gave a campaign speech in Lawrence to a gathering of the Kansas Young Democrats.
The Democratic candidate for governor spoke for about 20 minutes, mainly about K-12 and higher education funding, to an audience of about 56 enthusiastic party activists. Other Democratic candidates made appearances at the event as well, including 2nd Congressional District candidate Margie Wakefield.
By itself, there was nothing unusual about that, except that not a single newspaper, radio or TV reporter was there to cover the event. They hadn't been notified that the event was taking place. But a full video of Davis' speech was later posted on YouTube and promoted on Twitter by a blogger from the liberal-leaning website the Daily Kos.
And while party officials say there was nothing deliberate about that — they said it was a training seminar for young Democrats and not really a campaign event — political observers say it's becoming increasingly common in political races for candidates to stay clear of the mainstream media and take their messages directly to supporters.
"Yes, indeed, it is," said Chapman Rackaway, who teaches political science at Fort Hays State University. "The other thing to compound that — when you mention the Daily Kos — if there's any kind of media entity you're going to make welcome at a campaign event, it's the friendly, ideologically aligned, online-only media."
Controlling the message
Davis isn't the only candidate in this year's gubernatorial race whose campaign is limiting its mainstream media exposure.
In the newsroom section of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's campaign website, only two items appear: a statement from Brownback himself, responding to Davis' official entry into the race, and a videotaped interview he gave to Genevieve Wood, a contributing writer for the Daily Signal, an operation of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Campaign manager Mark Dugan said the Brownback campaign does not release a schedule of public appearances, as many other campaigns do. He said many of Brownback's appearances are done in his official capacity as governor, including press conferences where he discusses his positions and policy initiatives.
"I think Sam Brownback has been the most accessible governor in recent history," Dugan said. "He has traveled to all 105 counties in the state, and he will continue to do that throughout the campaign."
But Rackaway said there are dangers for all candidates in hosting open public appearances and exposing themselves to on-the-spot media inquiries.
"The problem with traditional, legacy media is that you run into traditional journalistic ethics," he said. "You can get asked tough questions, maybe not get glowing, positive news coverage. They want to be able to control their message as much as possible."
Matt MacWilliams, a Democratic political consultant and researcher at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said steering away from traditional media to keep control of the message has become a national phenomenon in politics.
"You don't need the soldiers of newspapers, TV or radio," MacWilliams said. "And you can control your message a lot more. If you're doing a TV interview, you know it's going to be a short bite, and it's going to be balanced with something else. It's going to be filtered."
Social media and micro-targeting
To an increasing extent, officials from both political parties in Kansas said, candidates and the parties themselves are taking advantage of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to deliver their message and are using sophisticated survey information to determine exactly what message they deliver to which voters.
So far this year, the Davis campaign appears to be making more effective use of Facebook to engage its supporters. The Davis campaign's Facebook page has been "liked" by more than 25,000 people, compared with about 13,000 for Brownback's Facebook page.
But Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said online social media hasn't been a major part of the GOP's communications strategy.
"You can use it to fire up supporters, to put out the red meat," Barker said. "We don't use it that much at the party level."
Officials from both state parties say that in addition to social media, the newest tool for managing campaigns is something known as "micro-targeting," something that President Barack Obama's campaign raised to new heights in his successful re-election bid in 2012.
Micro-targeting involves sophisticated survey data to identify the voters likely to support a party or candidate and, more importantly, which voters can be persuaded to support a candidate and what issues and particular messages are most likely to persuade those voters.
"Every election cycle it gets more and more sophisticated," Barker said.
Jason Perkey, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said his staff has been developing a micro-targeting database since the summer of 2012, and he thinks the Democrats are far ahead of Republicans in using that tool.
"Frankly, I can tell you that we believe it was instrumental in us maintaining eight seats in the (Kansas) Senate and 33 seats in the House," Perkey said, referring to the 2012 elections.
Fort Hays State professor Rackaway said he thinks both campaigns will continue to focus on targeting and controlling their messages through other media for most of the election cycle. But he predicts that as the race wears on, both campaigns will return to traditional media to carry their messages.
"There's no way they can successfully continue this campaign in the late stages of the general election without engaging traditional TV and newspapers," he said. "But right now they just want to keep it among friends."