The Highest-Priority Technical Advance for the Democratic Party


New contributor! But not someone new to the field: I first met Eric Loeb in the early days of internet politics, probably at the 1997 Politics Online Conference. Even before that, on Eric’s first trip to DC, he tried to contact President Carter to let him know that email was politically important. Eric later developed the Clinton/Gore email campaign (1992), which led to an MIT/White House collaboration called the Intelligent Information Infrastructure Project. Eric was the analytics shop at the Democratic National Committee in 2003 and the targeting and modeling lead (the staff statistician) for the Obama ’08 campaign.

This post first appeared on Medium.

The Democratic Party’s highest technical priority is an application to assist any and all Democrats in the creation of daily talking points. Crowdsourced talking points might have better brevity, broader appeal, superior strategic perseverance, and faster response to news events than the talking points assembled by professionals on staff at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The app will give all democrats a meaningful avenue of participation, increase party buy-in, build our lists, distribute our message, and serve as a de facto platform for an on-going surrogates program that will be under the control of party leaders without being dependent on leadership or significant funding to continue to operate.

Throughout my career as a technologist for the party, I have been befuddled by our talking points. They tend to be overly long (3–5 pages), unfocused (no single over-riding message), and dense (dozens of bullets, sub-bullets, and sub-sub-bullets). Like many of us I have watched time after time in fury and envy as the republicans respond to the issue of the day with the same misleading phrase repeated by all their speakers on all the channels and in response to any question. Meanwhile, I cannot recall a single instance of democratic message discipline that reached anything like the same heights of coordination (or, if you prefer, depths of obfuscation).

While I have often consoled myself with the thought that republicans are able to give the same simple message because they do not have any interest in truth, governance, or intellectual independence, I also have to admit that whatever shortcomings republicans may have, we cannot fairly blame them for our own messaging. Nor can we blame our own surrogates for different and/or incoherent messaging if they are not routinely provided with a common and coherent party message to deliver.

We should use the “wisdom of the crowd” effect to construct better daily talking points for our party surrogates. We can provide all registered democrats with an app for recommending message components and for voting those recommendations up or down. There are many available collaborative filtering techniques for doing this. The app would also show the latest official DNC talking points. Users would be able to see and compare the unofficial crowdsourced and the official professional talking points.

While I don’t love the way “registered democrats” sounds, it will be necessary to require participation by name and limit it to registered voters. The app will need anti-troll provisions. Participants will gain reputation by adding ideas and up/down voting ideas in ways that others agree with. A lone troll will lose reputation, and their posts will not tend to go far. A group of saboteurs could have an impact, as could a group of dissenters who have an alternative vision of where the party should stand. Voting down an idea will need a distinction between “disagree: trolling” and “disagree, but legitimate”.

I imagine that the app would be served from DNC computers. It would have web and mobile user interfaces for registered democrats. These users would be able to vote and/or contribute phrases to the crowdsourced talking points at any time. Because the activity will be continuous, the crowdsourced talking points will be able to respond rapidly to new events, with users quickly voting up responses to breaking news, perhaps faster than an official response can be coordinated and vetted for publication. The crowdsourced talking points should have a tightly constrained structure: a phrase of the day, top three topics, a memorable phrase for each topic, and three key facts for each topic.

The app should have a special interface for party surrogates and superdelegates, by which they can vote each day as to which of the available talking points are better. This will happen naturally, of course, when the surrogates appear before the media and decide what to say, but holding a formal vote will have many benefits for the party. First, by knowing who is or is not a party leader (surrogate and/or superdelegate), the app will necessitate and provide some persistent, minimal, centralized, official technical structure for a surrogate program — something the party often appears not to have. The top Google hit for “democratic party talking points” at present writing is a web form with a 2008 copyright and an OFA logo. Second, if the results of the party officials’ preference vote are displayed each day, then the that selection of best talking points by the party’s surrogates and superdelegates will tend to drive users to the app to see the outcome. A repeating daily user base will be useful to the party in many ways. Third, the daily feedback loop from party base to party leaders and back again will create a stronger connection to the party for everybody.

It’s even possible that the crowdsourced talking points will be routinely deemed superior to the official talking points by the party’s own surrogates. If so, the talking point app will give the party leadership its only chance to discover that it does not need to dedicate precious staff time to constructing talking points. Perhaps. The great mass of democrats may be better able to sustain a drumbeat on critical issues than the DNC’s communications staff, which is subject to burnout, political pressures, and personal motivations. Even if a dedicated staff is needed, everybody will benefit from continuous knowledge of the pulse of the party.

And yes, I do mean everybody. Members of the media and the Republican Party will doubtless register as democrats and read the talking points. So what? A secret message of the day is an oxymoron, and if we have had secret talking points throughout the last year, then keeping our talking points secret has clearly been an abysmal failure. There would be some value in keeping the top supporting facts behind the talking points secret, but we can trust our surrogates to do some research on their own, and the crowdsourced talking points will rapidly adjust in the face of an effective republican pre-buttal.

The Democratic Party is ripe for disruption. The party has a republican form of governance in which a small number of elected experts (state party chairs, etc.) make decisions for the whole. This centuries-old party structure is not necessarily an unreasonable way to do things, but it is a slow and ineffectual organization for decisions that require innovation or rapid responses. Conversely, the technology for mass coordination and rapid innovation is on display wherever we look. Putting these things together, we have a preponderance of democrats dissatisfied with the responsiveness of their party and also readily able to look around and envision a better way — in other words, a party ripe for disruption.

As we disrupt the Democratic Party, we should replace, not eliminate, the advantages that a single central point of coordination give us somewhere-left-of-center folk. A disorganized mob of grassroots efforts is (demonstrably of late) scattered in its messaging. Worse, our grassroots efforts can be ineffectual and counterproductive in their messaging (see: March for Science). Conversely, disrupting the mechanisms of party strategy, such as the message of the day and surrogate talking points, will provide key enabling capabilities for some future, truly democratic, Democratic Party. The immediate need is to compete our best attempt at democratically crafted messages against our best professionally crafted messages. In the process we will provide immediately useful information for party leaders while learning how best to integrate the refined expertise of our party’s messaging professionals with the je ne sais quoi of our engaged rank and file.

Involving all democrats in daily messaging will be a great avenue for engagement without necessarily diminishing the professional quality of our existing message. I recommend that party officials and other surrogates receive the talking points of the base along with the talking points of the party’s communications professionals. The same leaders will still be in charge, but they will also at any time have a structured pulse of the party available to them. There’s little risk to gathering this information, and there’s potential for high reward if the crowdsourced talking points prove useful in any of a number of ways. Surely the grinding task of generating daily talking points could benefit from an extra, non-binding source of ideas from the party base. Let’s do this.

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Eric Loeb
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