December 24th, 2006
Writing in Personal Democracy Forum last week, Jerome Armstrong discussed a number of lessons he learned from leading the online arm of Mark Warner’s (once and possibly future?) presidential campaign operation. He raised several good points, from the power of organizing local blog networks to the fragmentation of online media into many niches to the need to combine data that has often been hidden in silos.
Reading his article inspired me to go back to my notes from a similar presentation he participated in at RootsCampDC back on December 2nd, along with several other members of Warner’s web team (see the photo in the PDF article to see who took part). The group brought up a bunch of interesting observations, not all of which made it into Jerome’s article.
Nate Wilcox, for instance, talked about politics as moving out of the broadcast era and into a new era of machine politics, but with organizations like MoveOn, individual campaigns and the parties providing the machinery instead of geographically-based groups like the traditional urban political machines. I’d caution against overstating the point, since broadcast media are going to be vital tools as far out as we can see right now, but it is an interesting conceptual framework. We can think of these new political machines as existing alongside campaigns’ mass-media outreach to the uncommitted, but they’d usually be running much more below the surface. Some grassroots operations would be long-lived, while others would be organized to meet a particular goal and then would evaporate.
Nate stressed, though, the importance to the progressive movement of a sustained architecture for long-term political organizing. For instance, he discussed the fact that electoral campaigns spend a huge amount of effort building up volunteer lists, email lists and voter target lists, but that the data tend to go away as soon the election is over (particularly if the campaign loses). He sees the Democrats as needing an equivalent of the Republican Voter Vault — a voter list that is open and accessible to all Democratic campaigns and that doesn’t disappear as soon as the votes are cast.
Another point that came up in the discussion was the need for campaigns to integrate field organizing and tech teams — the two MUST work closely together to work on the nuts and bolts of removing barriers to activism. Anyone who’s tried to build an activist list would agree, since the slightest obstacle in the process of signing up a volunteer can cut the success rate dramatically (just as small speedbumps in an e-commerce system can cripple a company’s online sales).
One interesting side note was the group’s take on Warner’s Second Life appearance, which I (among others) refused to take too seriously. Turns out, while it got very little attention in the traditional media and on political blogs, it got huge pickup in the tech world — several of the larger technology and gaming blogs gave it big play, and it really helped expose Warner to a potentially useful (and not so easy to reach) constituency. Never underestimate the potential value of obscure niches!
Several ideas batted around at the RootsCamp discussion did end up in Jerome’s PDF article, though, for instance the importance of looking for inspiration at what’s happening NOW across the Internet rather than at what worked in the last campaign (two years can be an eternity in online time). Also, he really focused in both venues on the need to break down data silos and to make sure that a campaign is using a single platform for ALL of its data (where have we heard before that integration is key?). I fear that this is one battle that electoral and advocacy campaigns will be fighting for a long time. Thanks to Jerome and to the RootsCamp and Personal Democracy Forum folks for creating opportunities for this kind of hands-on experience to spread to the rest of us.