Synopsis: New online tools create the potential for organic, ‘open source’ campaigns in which supporters self organise campaigning activities without top down hierarchical control. ‘Big Money’ is emasculated, party big wigs are sidelined and citizens are empowered.
My Take: Joe Trippi is an interesting character. Part long-time tech geek, part serious political campaigner, he has a unique perspective on the potential for ICT in politics. He also had a front row seat for the first time that politics and the Internet collided in a big way in his capacity as the campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 Presidential run. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised shares Trippi’s split personality; it part political memoir and part treatise for the new model of Internet driven political pioneered on the Dean campaign.
While Trippi’s stories about being both tech-geek and political hack are entertaining (his story about buying a $17,000, 16 bit computer for the 1981 Californian Gubernatorial Campaign is enough to bring a smile to any boffins face), it’s Trippi’s insights into internet campaigning where the book is most valuable. While the title of the book is pretty over-blown, it’s hard to deny that the new campaigning pioneered by Howard Dean (and further developed by Barack Obama) is a genuinely distinct model from the dominant ‘War Room’ campaigning paradigm of the past fifteen years.
In a nutshell, new campaigning utilises Internet tools to ‘open source’ political campaigning; sharing information and resources with the entire supporter base and then ceding organisational control to the supporter base. Importantly, new campaigning doesn’t constitute a total relinquishment of control to the supporters. Traditional message development, media management, rapid response and policy development functions remain largely centralised. However, these centralised functions are supplemented by the decentralised organisational campaigning activities of the campaign’s supporter base. In essence, new campaigning uses the Internet to create a movement rather than an organisation. It’s more analogous to the decentralised actions of thousands of individuals than a top down, coordinated military operation.
In the new campaigning model, the role of campaign headquarters is more that of a facilitator rather than a director, providing the tools and creating the right environment for a community of organisers to emerge. To do achieve this, new campaigning gives supporters real freedom and control over the organisational and fundraising aspects of the campaign- a dramatic departure from the traditional War Room model’s focus on controlling and standardising local campaigning efforts. In fact, control is not simply delegated to specific local campaign organisations; it is opened up to all comers. The campaign isn’t just de-centralised it’s open-sourced. In Trippi’s words
“(The Dean Campaign) just turned the thing loose. Threw it out there to see who would catch it”.
While it’s natural and justifiable for seasoned hacks to be suspicious of Trippi’s claims and to question what kind of influence the Internet actually had on the Dean campaign in light of the campaign’s ultimate failure, observers should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ultimately it was the flaws of the candidate that torpedoed Dean for America, not the flaws of the campaign model. In fact, Barack Obama has picked up where Howard Dean left off in 2004 and implemented a campaign model remarkably similar to that employed by Dean for America.
Instead of standardising and controlling local campaigning efforts, the Obama campaign focused on facilitating organisation and collaboration between supporters independent of the campaign hierarchy. The Internet has played a central, but not exclusive role in facilitating this strategy. The Obama campaign has funnelled its supporters towards the most successful online tool deployed during the 2008 campaign; my.barackobama.com.
When Obama launched this my.barackobama.com more than a year before the US Primary Season opened, he asked his supporters to “use this website as a tool to organize your friends, your neighbours and your networks”. This is exactly what has occurred. A cross between an online social networking website (like Facebook or MySpace) and the internet enabled real-world connection sites (eg Meet-up, Eventful), my.barackobama.com has functioned as a hub for the decentralised efforts of thousands of Obama volunteers. More than 350,000 supporters had signed up for accounts on my.barackobama.com as of the end of January 2008, growing to more than 500,000 by the end of February.
Most importantly, my.barackobama allowed supporters to bypass the Obama campaign hierarchy and link up with other Obama supporters in their area directly. The flexible and open structure of my.barackobama.com has enabled Obama supporters to organise themselves in an amazing variety of forms including by geographic location, by demographics and even by taste in music. In essence, the site has become a community of communities all organising in support of the Obama campaign.
The site also provides tools to help community members organise campaigning events in their area including virtual phone bank applications and call lists, precinct canvassing walk lists and instructions for hosting an Obama house party without the need for contact with or direction from an ‘official’ campaign organisation. Instead of developing chains of command and accountability mechanisms, my.barackobama.com uses a scoreboard to record the campaign activities undertaken by volunteers and rank and recognise top contributors. As Joe Rospars, the Obama new media director has said
“We put these tools online as a public utility. We said to our supporters, ‘Have at it’”
The results of this strategy have been spectacular, facilitating the organisation of more than 30,000 supporter initiated campaign events on the site in less than a year. Ultimately, the low cost, decentralised, organisation that was made possible by the Obama Campaign’s online community building was the key to Obama winning ten straight contests between Super Tuesday and the Ohio and Texas primaries by an average of more than 30 points.
The lack of direct control from the Obama campaign over much of its organisation did result in some hiccoughs, most notably the Cuban Flag/Che Guevera footage that was filmed in an unofficial campaign head quarters and was subsequently broadcast extensively on Fox News, however the plausible deniability of the campaign structure meant that media fall-out from these events was easily mitigated. Ultimately, Obama’s decentralised organisation was an overwhelming positive for the campaign. As Joe Trippi has noted
“(The Dean campaign was) like the Wright Brothers… a flimsy little thing with propellers. Just four years later, (the Obama campaign is) landing on the Moon.”
While Hillary Clinton has run an almost equally effective campaign by employing a traditional, top-down organisational model, Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign has clearly proven that the internet enabled, decentralised, open-source campaign model outlined in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised can work on the biggest stage in politics. Internet campaigning is already real.
So how do you run an Internet enabled campaign? Usefully, Trippi outlines some guidelines for making it work:
- Be first – the first guys in the field on the Internet have a head start in building a community.
- Keep it moving – The internet is a dynamic environment; “Your Internet presence should be an organic, flowing, daily dialogue with your customers, back and forth.”
- Use an authentic voice – Sacrifice slickness for authenticity; You want to connect with your community, not manipulate them.
- Tell the Truth – Be transparent; the Internet makes it very difficult to hide something.
- Build a community – create an environment where you supporters can come together and interact with the campaign and each other. Campaign information flows should be up and down (between campaign HQ and the community), but also side to side (bypassing the campaign HQ).
- Cede Control – Remember that ‘we’ are smarter than ‘me’.
- Believe Again – have faith in the electorate and your volunteers.
I’m still not sure about how much of this transfers to the Australian environment; specifically whether our online community is mature enough to sustain the necessary level of engagement and whether our closed party structure would support such a campaign. We certainly haven’t seen a campaign in the mould of Dean or Obama’s in Australia yet.
However, it’s an interesting read nonetheless. It’s worth your time if only for the insight it gives into the significance of the clash of campaign models represented by the Clinton/Obama race. If you’ve got the slightest interest in politics and the ‘net, do yourself and pick up a copy of this book.
“At campaign headquarters, we honestly didn’t know about many of the events going on out there. Unlike the classic Command and Control style of campaigning – where nothing happens that isn’t tightly monitored by headquarters – if we wanted to know what was going on in the campaign, much of the time we had to do what everyone else did. We had to go where the campaign really was: The Internet.”