Here’s a sign that the Tea Party movement intends to be a force in politics for years to come — some of its leaders are trying to build the foundation of a powerful online fundraising and organizing presence. Some hints about what they’re up to:
- Developing an online fundraising apparatus modeled after Obama’s small-donor operation. According to a Post article last week, “We’re looking at the potential of raising small checks from a vast number of donors, just as Obama did,” [Freedom Works President Matt] Kibbe said. “We’ve been studying everything about the Obama primary strategy, and I happen to think the tea party movement could make even the Obama grass-roots machine look obsolete.”
- Conservative bloggers, including RedState.com’s Erick Erickson, are planning to encourage their readers to donate to candidates who match the Tea Partiers’ political beliefs, in much the same way that Daily Kos and other liberal blogs have channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to left-of-center candidates over the past half-decade.
- As Cyrus Krohn mentioned during last week’s virtual book party for About Face, another Tea Party initiative is underway to create a comprehensive voter database modeled on the Republicans’ Voter Vault and the Democrats’ Voter Activation Network and Catalist, which if successful would make it much easier for Tea Party-related groups to influence political races at a precinct level.
What should we make of these developments? First, they show for the umpteenth time that the tools don’t care who uses them, and that the Left has no monopoly on internet organizing. Tea Partiers can learn from Obama just as much as anyone else can, and it should be no surprise when political insurgents go online to level the political playing field with their Establishment rivals.
Second, these folks are properly focusing on the two elements critical to swinging primary and general elections: money and voter turnout. Showing up at Congressional townhall meetings and public rallies is all fun and games, but real political power demands that the Tea Partiers demonstrate the ability to shift the outcome of elections by sending bodies to the polls, contributions to the bank or both.
Next, the inevitable caveats. For one thing, the desire to emulate Obama’s online fundraising is one thing, but creating a system that makes “even the Obama grass-roots machine look obsolete” is entirely another. Obama’s impressive online fundraising was the result not just of his supporters’ enthusiasm, but also of a long, carefully planned and centrally organized campaign to recruit and motivate donors and volunteers.
Perhaps most critically, Obama’s online fundraising didn’t exist in a vacuum — it was just one aspect of a comprehensive and integrated effort to keep supporters engaged and involved online and in their communities. The results were unprecedented and aren’t likely to be equaled soon, particularly by a movement that seems to splinter into fragments at the drop of a hat, or of a plastic Jesus on a spring.
But even if the Tea Partiers do use online organizing to become a persistent political force, what about the long-term consequences? Obama may have won, but other online-heavy candidates haven’t done as well (think Howard Dean and Ron Paul — you still need a message palatable to the masses to spread beyond your own niche). And while a progresive online insurgency has helped hold Democrats’ feet to the liberal fire, blogger-favored candidates have not fared as well overall.
In fact, the Tea Partiers’ online organizing may be more dangerous to Republicans than Democrats, as in the 2009 special election in upstate New York that swung a seat to the Dems for the first time in over a century (as an analogy, Joe Lieberman is still in office despite Ned Lamont, and Dems who want health care reform are now paying the price for his challenge). The more the Tea Partiers seize the microphone and scare moderate Republicans with primary opponents, the more people they’re likely to drive away from conservative politics. If Step One is to destroy the current Republican Establishment, what happens if they never get to Step Two?