Learning from the Ron Paul Online Fundraising Frenzy

Ron Paul and his band of online insurgents did it again — they mobilized online support to gin up tons of cash (a cool $4.2 million) and make the mainstream media take notice. Outside the Beltway has a good wrap-up of news coverage, and of course the online politics crowd has weighed in as well.

Writing in tPrez and his own site, for instance, Patrick Ruffini argues that:

Candidates like Paul and Huckabee are better able to capitalize on offline momentum because of the vibrant grassroots ecosystems that exist around them. These campaigns deliberately nurture these ecosystems not by bringing them in house, but by giving them prominent placement on their Web sites and access to inside dirt that was previously the province of finance staff only.

Patrick makes some great points about the non-campaign-driven nature of Paul’s support, including analogies to the 2004 Dean campaign. He points out that more traditional campaigns such as Hillary Clinton’s and Barak Obama’s rely more on top-driven communications (notably email), rather than a loose, distributed network of supporters acting on their own, and argues that the campaign-centric approach doesn’t do much to turn supporters into advocates.

Here’s my thing, though: Ron Paul and Howard Dean stand out for very good reasons. It’s quite rare for spontaneous, passionate movements to form around ANY public figure, regardless of what his or her communications strategy is. The Paul campaign doesn’t seem to have planned for their supporters to be as active online as they are, any more than the Dean campaign planned for their supporters to start using Meetup.com — in both cases, they managed to catch a wave and ride it as well as they could.

The problem is, that strategy is going to be tough to replicate throughout the rest of the political system. If you’re a congressional candidate in Oklahoma, or a city council candidate in Des Moines, or a state senatorial candidate in Tuscon, you’re not likely to have the advantage of having a couple of years to build support in the blogosphere or other online forums. And, it takes a lot of people being involved for a grassroots movement to take off. Patrick cites “Trippi’s axiom about 600,000 online supporters being smarter than 200 people in Burlington,” but most non-presidential campaigns in the real world aren’t ever going to HAVE 600,000 online supporters — they’ll be lucky to have a few dozen really committed staff and volunteers.

That being said, of course I agree with his larger point that campaigns should do everything they can to involve online activists and give them the tools to act, through blogs, online communities, behind-the-scenes conference calls, email lists, etc etc ad nauseum, and that there’s a real difference between passive supporters and active advocates. But there’s also a big difference between an online wildfire, which blows up only under the right conditions, and an online campfire, which is what most campaigns would be well advised to try to start.


Written by
Colin Delany
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1 comment
  • Hey Colin,

    Thanks for the posting and the links to the other Ron Paul analysis. Reading it all, I remembered what Valdis Krebs from orgnet wrote in the IPDI book on social-networks and UGM (which you contributed to, I believe). Basically, Krebs said that Dean’s biggest mistake was in being unable to translate his Internet following into effective “boots on the ground” community building in Iowa (the infamous “orange hats” brigade, for example).

    Do you agree with Krebs, and do you think Paul is falling into the same trap?