The Internet Is People

The Internet has become inextricable from modern campaigning, thanks to the ubiquity of email and the cost-margins of online messaging. But have we really reached a point where elections are won on the web?

This week’s readings make a strong case for “yes.”

The Obama campaign, particularly its 2008 iteration, is presented as an exemplar.

Zach Exley’s impressive article, “The New Organizers,” captured the evolution of the Dean campaign’s operations, as described by Nuxoll, into a new paradigm of involvement in 2008. Massive amounts of self-entered website data facilitated a “neighborhood team” structure and enabled volunteers to become leaders, rather than assets to be directed by central authority. This is contrasted to the 2004 Kerry Campaign, which was unable to grant volunteers consistent duties—and couldn’t sustain passion as a result. What Exley describes, however, is a type of involvement that spurs lasting connection. In their desire to keep the intense feelings of the campaign alive, participants go on to remain active in their communities and public service. As Patrick Frank, a young volunteer, is quoted: “on the Obama campaign, when I see people like me and my friends used to be, we turn them around and say, ‘Well hey, here’s how to be a community organizer. Let me help you be a community organizer.’”

This GOTV innovation is also discussed in Seth Colter Walls’s “Neighbor to Neighbor.” By using real-time, mobile data tracking, canvassers can track on-the-fence voters within neighborhoods, even street by street. These canvassers can also increase voter registration (presumably regardless of party).

And even a Harvard Business School case study, by Deighton and Kornfeld, discusses Obama’s paragon of online presence. Drawing lines from the Eisenhower shift to TV, and Nixon’s use of direct mail, the authors suggest that the ‘net is both a logical descendant of these and something new altogether. The study notes that Obama’s YouTube channel had a view count nearly ten times higher than Hilary Clinton’s channel. It also points out, via the example of Clinton’s “3 AM” ad, and the way in which Obama supporters made mitigating parodies, that a passionate, tech savvy constituency can provide an amazing buffer. (In a YouTube era, one wonders whether a movie-making Kerry supporter could have weakened George Bush’s “wolves” ad.)

So the consensus seemed to be that the Internet really was changing the game, and that it might even be able to become the whole game, and that Obama’s 2008 campaign was nearly perfect in its applications.

But I decided that some crowdsourcing was in order, so I decided to see what fellow classmates thought, too. Billy Pope’s blog links Shirky’s maxim on successful group formation (Answer #1 on our midterm!) to the Obama campaign: “a plausible promise, an effective tool, and an acceptable bargain with the users.” (Although Pope also finds flaws with the follow-through, and the ability of the campaign to interact with government once the race is won.) With regard to Obama’s embodiment of Shirky’s concepts, the “New Organizers” article reinforces this observation. Exley notes the field campaign’s “ubiquitous motto”—“Respect. Empower. Include”—and draws a persuasive picture of an organization that gives its volunteers real parts to play, and, more importantly, parts they want to play. But with regard to the Exley piece, classmate Kevin Prager makes a good point: “While I know that the use of online tools was crucial to execute a flawless ground game in 2008, this article barely even mentions technology. Why? Because it is still an enabler in this field, and cannot yet replace the human touch.”

Looking past Obama at a more recent ground game, an article about Harry Reid discusses applying the long tail to campaigns, via “nanotargeting.” This form of niche-messaging and informational persuasion seems to represent every noble hope for how the Internet can be employed to enhance constituent decision making. But classmate Zach Crowley raises worthy concerns about the ability of streamlined campaigns to stint on troublesome details, even as they purport to inform voters.

In the end, I think Kevin’s idea is closest to right: the Internet is an amazing tool, as is the capacity for vast, granular data collection. But without a dedicated cohort of believers, field teams willing to work unimaginable hours for terrible pay and in the face of as much citizen rejection as popular support, the Internet cannot win elections. Molly Ball’s recent Atlantic article drives this home, by examining the degree to which this election will cement—or dismiss—the value of tightly focused field work. My mom, who’s been campaigning for Obama in New Hampshire, would probably agree. I know she’s hoping her efforts pay off.

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