Who Learned the Right Lessons from the Dean Campaign? A Reply to Matt Bai

Cross-posted on techPresident

Writing in the NY Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago, Matt Bai evoked a vivid picture to describe how political campaigns should, in his eyes, harness the internet:

In the new and evolving online world, the greatest momentum goes not to the candidate with the most detailed plan for conquering the Web but to the candidate who surrenders his own image to the clicking masses, the same way a rock guitarist might fall backward off the stage into the hands of an adoring crowd.

Powerful image! But some pictures hold less than meets the eye, and this might just be one of them. Are the presidential campaigns missing the boat, or do they know something we don’t? Let’s hear more from Matt first:

Now, as we come to the end of a tumultuous political year, it seems clear that the candidates and their advisers absorbed the wrong lessons from Dean’s moment, or at least they failed to grasp an essential truth of it, which is that these things can’t really be orchestrated. Dean’s campaign didn’t explode online because he somehow figured out a way to channel online politics; he managed this feat because his campaign, almost by accident, became channeled by people he had never met.

The conclusion definitely SEEMS clear: to mobilize the masses, campaigns have to surrender control to supporters to a previously unimaginable extent. But perhaps in this case, it’s not the campaigns that learned the wrong message from the Dean campaign, but Matt Bai.

Before I go any farther, let me clarify that I’m a big fan of people-powered politics: if you look back at the last 17 months of articles on e.politics, you’ll find plenty that celebrate the power of digital networks to allow ordinary people to upset the political applecart in ways previously unimaginable. Internet activism is real, and it CAN be really powerful. But there’s a big difference between a phenomenon, which is something that happens, and a strategy, which is an attempt to MAKE something happen. Political campaigns may well benefit if they can catch a wave of people-powered politics, but they still have to win elections even when the waters stay calm.

Here’s the thing: most political campaigns don’t exist to create or to capture a movement, they exist to elect a candidate, which is a very different thing. And they don’t have long to do it — an average electoral campaign lasts only a few months and has very limited resources to get its job done. Campaign staff MUST weigh the risks and rewards of any given tactic, since they are painfully aware that wasted time equals lost opportunities (lost votes and lost donations). Campaign consultants are often accused of lagging behind their counterparts in the commercial marketing world and even the political issue advocacy world, but a major reason is that they HAVE to use methods that are known to work — when you have very little time to get your candidate elected, you’re going to be biased toward tactics that you know you can trust.

Let’s look carefully at the campaigns Bai would have us use as a model, Howard Dean and Ron Paul. What are two things that unite them? In both cases, they started out with limited resources but a strong message with a ready-made audience. In Dean’s case, that audience was largely anti-Iraq-war Democrats, while in Ron Paul’s case it was a combination of anti-Iraq-war Republicans and libertarians. Both times, they were delivering a wanted message to people who felt left out of the political process and had the means and inclination to use technology to remedy that state. Your average political campaign? Desperately fighting to get noticed at all, not struggling to make the most of an overwhelming flood of citizen-organized donation drives and blimp rentals. Rare is the candidate for any office at any level who has the slightest chance of igniting an activist firestorm.

Let’s qualify this observation, though, since campaigns can certainly give their candidates a better CHANCE of finding a wave of online support than most do. Giving supporters the tools to evangelize is a good start, from web widgets to rally-your-friends personal donations campaigns to simple talking points for water-cooler conversations. Treating supporters as something other than organic automatic teller machines is another good step: volunteers have brains as well as wallets, and social media techniques can help a candidate tap them. But campaigns are naturally going to be reluctant to cede too much of their message to supporters, since they have already have more than enough trouble with actual official staffers going off the reservation. The best strategy will naturally involve striking a balance, and where Matt and I would agree is that this year’s presidentials have generally swung too far in the direction of top-down control.

Another of Matt’s assertions actually leads to a good model, though it begins with the questionable idea that having a professional web staff opens a campaign up to trouble:

Meanwhile, those candidates who have amassed roomfuls of well-paid online experts have frequently found themselves buffeted or embarrassed (or sometimes both at once) by mysterious forces outside their grasp. Take, for instance, the much-forwarded “Obama Girl” music video, written by a 21-year-old undergraduate at Temple University. (“Universal healthcare reform/It makes me warm,” mouths the model in the video.) Fairly or not, that video probably had more to do with shaping Obama’s complicated public image — young and exciting but maybe a bit shallow — than any Internet appeal devised by the candidate’s own aides.

That’s quite a bold claim — good thing Bai’s article is short enough that there’s no room for actual evidence. I could just as easily claim that the Obama Girl video contributed to the perception that Obama is charismatic and has the kind of “star power” that Democrats remember a Bill Clinton or John F. Kennedy projecting, and was thus a significant plus for the campaign (can you imagine a similar video about Chris Dodd?). Also, don’t forget that the Obama campaign benefitted early on from the “1984” ad, created by a then-Blue State Digital employee in his free time. Considering that Blue State was consulting with Obama at the time, I suspect that citizen-created online video was far from a “mysterious force” to his campaign staff.

But Obama Girl and the Obama/Bollywood videos might just point us toward a better metaphor than that of the guitarist falling gently into his fans’ arms like snow from a cedar. In the online world, EVERYBODY has a guitar now, and the guy onstage is competing with every one of them. We live at a time when creativity and personal expression are becoming the new norm rather than a rare exception, and political campaigns (along with all the other marketers out there) are competing with a million different voices to be heard. Why not try to teach them all to play your songs? If they like what they hear, they’ll play along. In some cases, they’ll write new verses that might just better the originals, and if you’re smart, you’ll listen. It beats the hell out of the current system, which is to raise enough money to buy a big amplifier and try to drown everyone else out.


Written by
Colin Delany
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