Book Excerpt: Innovation, Infrastructure, and Organization in New Media Campaigning

Guest article! Below is the first section of the introduction to Daniel Kreiss’s new book, “Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama,” available in the Amazon store. We’ll be running a section of a later chapter next week, but to read the whole thing (and to get the tasty footnotes) you’ll need to buy a copy. After reading what’s below, I think you’ll want to.

Innovation, Infrastructure, and Organization in New Media Campaigning
Excerpted from “Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama”

By Daniel Kreiss

On February 10, 2007, Barack Obama’s presidential exploratory committee posted a video of the candidate on BarackObama.com. In it, Obama declared that he was formally entering the race for the presidency and that “tomorrow, we begin a great journey. A journey to take our country back.” Obama echoed Howard Dean’s announcement speech nearly four years earlier, on June 23, 2003, in which the former Vermont governor declared that “we stand today in common purpose to take our country back.” Obama, of course, ascended to the presidency—an achievement of which Dean had only dreamed.

More than rhetoric links the campaigns of the two men. Dean’s run came up short, but the insurgent, outsider candidate was stunningly successful at mobilizing his supporters. While ultimately short-lived, Dean’s success was in large part due to the campaign’s embrace of the Internet. The Dean campaign took up an extraordinary array of tools to spur supporters to action and to coordinate their efforts. The campaign was the first to routinely and systematically use e-mail for fund-raising and to deploy a blog to gather supporters. The campaign was also a remarkable site of technical innovation, as staffers and volunteers modified existing technologies to meet their needs and built entirely new tools, including an early social networking application that enabled supporters to find one another and thus coordinate their electoral efforts. The campaign’s organizational innovations were as important as its technical work. Dean’s staffers crafted new and effective practices for mobilizing and coordinating the efforts of supporters online. As a result of this work, the campaign set records for fund-raising, drew tens of thousands of supporters to events, and moved thousands of volunteers to contact voters months in advance of the Iowa caucuses.

With these tools in hand, and with the knowledge and skills gained over the course of an election cycle, a new generation of political staffers and consultancies specializing in new media campaigning emerged from the ashes of Dean for America and helped rebuild the infrastructure of the Democratic Party. Through these staffers and firms, the tools and practices for online campaigning, first honed during Dean’s run, spread across Democratic politics. One of these firms, Blue State Digital (BSD), played a particularly important role in rebuilding the party’s technical infrastructure after John Kerry’s devastating defeat. 1 Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Clay Johnson, Joe Rospars, and Ben Self, four young veterans of the Dean effort who got their start in politics during that campaign, launched BSD soon after the candidate withdrew from the race. It was a time when the phones of Dean’s Internet staffers rang with opportunities, despite their candidate’s collapse. The four found their services in high demand, and quickly built their business of providing tools and strategy for online campaigning. In the process, they contributed to a number of Democratic electoral victories. Among dozens of campaign clients, the firm’s founders provided the technology and online strategy for Dean’s political action committee Democracy for America and contributed to the effort to get Dean elected party chair. Soon after, working for the new chairman, they rebuilt the party’s technological systems, implemented a new online campaign platform, and led the effort to create a national voter file and database system.

The morphing of Dean for America into Obama for America was more than a metaphor for a style of politics. Through their work between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, BSD’s founders refined the technologies and organizing practices first crafted during the Dean campaign and made them more powerful. They then applied their tools and skills to the 2008 Obama campaign. BSD provided the campaign’s electoral platform, and Rospars served as its new media director. (Rospars later became the chief digital strategist for the president’s reelection campaign.) The 2008 Obama campaign’s tools and new media strategy were not responsible for the extraordinary mobilization around the candidate. Tools and organization translated the efforts of millions—mobilized by Obama’s charisma, rhetoric, and the political opportunity to elect a Democrat and African American to the presidency—into the concrete electoral resources that formed the mantra for the campaign’s New Media Division: “money, message, and mobilization.”

Michael Slaby, the 2008 campaign’s chief technology officer and the 2012 campaign’s chief integration and innovation officer, relates, “We didn’t have to generate desire very oft en. We had to capture and empower interest and desire…. We made intelligent decisions that kept it growing but I don’t think anybody can really claim we started something.”

As this collective outpouring took shape, the campaign had much of the staff, practice, and tools in place to convene and harness it for electoral ends. As they did so, new media staffers helped the campaign build a massive electoral operation that rivaled the partisan mobilization during the era of strong party politics more than a century ago. Supporters across the country used online calling tools to make over 30 million phone calls to voters in batt leground states. Millions made small donations online and donned Obama merchandise purchased through the campaign’s online store. Over 2 million citizens created accounts on the campaign’s electoral platform, My.BarackObama.com, where they used tools to independently host tens of thousands of volunteer and fund-raising events for Obama and set up over 35,000 geographic- and affinity-based groups of supporters. The campaign, through e-mail and online advertising, mobilized tens of thousands to drive hundreds of miles to volunteer for the candidate in states stretching from Washington to Florida.

This book reveals the previously untold history of how the individuals and innovations of the Howard Dean campaign came to play a starring role in the effort to elect the nation’s first African American president. In doing so, it tells the history of new media and Democratic campaigning over much of the last decade, documenting key moments of electoral innovation, charting the dissemination and evolution of tools and techniques as they moved across politics, and chronicling the organizations that shape the ways in which candidates use new media.

In addition to providing a rich look at the tools and practices that make up contemporary campaigning, this book contributes to scholarly understanding of new media and politics. Over the decades of the Internet’s development and popularization, the medium has inspired reams of books and articles that speculate about its effects on the American political process. In recent years, many scholars have turned to a classic body of work on the cost of participating in and organizing collective action to explain phenomena such as the Dean and Obama campaigns.

These scholars analyze the effects of “Web 2.0 information environments” on political organization and citizen participation. Scholars argue that networked digital media dramatically lower the cost of producing and disseminating political information and enable new forms of large-scale, networked collective action to occur entirely independently of formal organizations. Meanwhile, scholars argue that through their use of new media,
resource-poor campaigns and political organizations have new opportunities to engage in strategic communications and to organize collective action, ultimately extending their ability to influence the political process.

Despite this large body of work and the insights that it offers, we lack answers to some important questions about new media and politics, which frame this book. If, as many accounts of new media and politics suggest, technologies are “out there” for campaigns to use as needed, why was the Dean campaign the site of the campaign innovations that many document? How did the social and technical innovations of the campaign spread to other sites in politics so that by 2006 Democratic campaigns routinely deployed many of the same tactics and tools used by Dean? What explains the enormous growth in online fund-raising and voluntarism between 2004 and 2008, and why was the Obama campaign the widely regarded leader in using new media during the presidential cycle?

In answering these questions, this book explores three central themes that are largely absent from accounts of new media and politics: innovation, infr astructure, and organization . A central claim of this book is that information environments do not simply emerge and change on their own through an inherent technological logic. Information environments are actively made by people, organizations, and the tools they create and wield. The most taken-for-granted forms of online electoral collective action, such as donating money and contacting voters, are premised upon years of technical development, infrastructure building, and knowledge creation, as well as enormous investments of financial and human resources. Strategic political actors draw on these social and technical resources to create the work and communication practices and organizational processes that shape and support online collective action. As such, this book argues that much of the scholarly literature in the electoral domain has the wrong object in view in focusing on the outcomes of this work, rather than the processes that create information environments.

You won’t get much argument on that last point here…. Want more? Pick up your copy today. – cpd

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