Political Technology


$55 million and the emergence of "a virtuous cycle of participation"

Travis touches on this issue in his post, but on this day that Barack Obama announced that he raised $11m more last month than any candidate in the history of politics, I wanted to revisit this theme again. For the story here is not just about money, but the emergence of a new 21st century people-driven politics.

Pete and I talk about the emergence of what we call a "new politics" in our "50 Year Strategy" essay, and in a piece I wrote right before Super Tuesday I talked about the explosion of money, voting and volunteering all coming together in "a virtuous cycle of participation."

Here is the heart of it:

A Virtuous Cycle of Participation - Finally, Obama has one very powerful advantage in these final days that is hard to see and evaluate - the power of his virtual community across the country. We saw the power of this community with the truly extraordinary amount of money it raised for him in January. But equally important in these final days will be the virtual door knocking these millions of people will be doing - emails to their address books, actions on MySpace, Facebook and other social networking sites, text messages sent to friends, viral videos linked too, and comments left on blogs, newspapers and call in radio shows. It is no exaggeration to say that this million or so impassioned Obama supporters will reach tens of millions of voters in highly personal ways in the next few days, providing a messaging and personal validation of Obama that may be equal in weight to the final round of TV ads, free media and traditional grassroots methods.

All the way back in 2003, I wrote an essay about this new era of participation in politics that argued the new Dean campaign model was changing the way we had to imagine what a Presidential campaign was all about. In the 20th century, a Presidential campaign was about 30 second spots, tarmac hits and 200 kids in a headquarters. In the 21st century, the race for the Presidency would be about ten million people going to work each day, wired into the campaign through the campaign's site, through email, sms, social networking sites etc acting as full partners in the fight not just passive couch potatoes to be persuaded.

This is a very different model of politics. One begun by Dean but being taken to a whole other level by Obama. It puts people and their passion for a better nation at the core of politics. When used correctly, it creates a virtuous cycle of participation, where more and more people engage, take an action and bring others in, creating a self-perpetuating and dynamic network of support. It is also why the endorsements of entities with large, active virtual communities - Kerry.org, MoveOn - is so meaningful for Obama. He has created an on-line ecosystem that can quickly take advantage of the support of the millions of people now doing politics in this new 21st century way and exponentially grow his dynamic community of change.

The Democratic Party is one entire Presidential cycle ahead of the Republicans in adopting this new model, and I will argue it is simply not possible for the Republican nominee to catch up this year. Too much experimentation, too much trial and error goes into inventing this new model for it to be easily and quickly adapted. It has to be invented, not adapted. I'm sure the GOP will catch up over time, but this year year the only GOP candidate who has taken this new model seriously has been Ron Paul - and they have paid the price. Obama raised almost as much money in January of this year as John McCain raised in all of 2007. Democrats are raising much more money across the board, seeing historic levels of voter turnout, increased Party registrations and millions more working along side with the campaigns - all of which is creating an extraordinary virtuous cycle of participation that continues to grow the number getting engaged in politics as never before. While there can be little doubt that anger towards Bush and disapointment with his government is a driving force behind this, the key takeaway is that the adoption of this new politics by Democrats allowed the Party to take advantage of this tidal wave in unprecedented ways, and will be one of the Democratic Party's most significant advantages going into the fall elections.

Much attention has been given to the money raised by this Obama network. Much more needs to be given to the power of it to deliver message, provide personal validation to friends, neighbors, colleagues and peers in ways so powerful, and ways never seen before in American history. I have no doubt that it has been the campaign's ability to foster and channel the passion of his supporters - creating a vrituous cycle of particpation - into an unprecedented national network - helping amplify and reinforce the power of Obama's argument - that is playing a critical role in Obama's closing the gap with Clinton in these final exciting and dramatic days before Super Tuesday.

The Virtuous Cycle of Participation

It is a phrase that finds itself being uttered by Senator Hillary Clinton in debates and speeches so much that her audience concurrently recites it: "Join us in this campaign. Go to www.hillaryclinton.com." And it is significant because it shows at least an acknowledgement of what has been going on in the way politics is oriented.

There are the top-down campaigns, which, as Simon has said, are characterized by the 30-second ad, the stop on the tarmac, and the 200 volunteers at headquarters; and then there are the bottom-up campaigns, characterized by new tools that allow organizations to be decentralized in key ways to maximize its reach.

Each is enabled and defined - to various degrees - by what Simon has described as the virtuous cycle of participation.

Tim Dickinson's fantastic piece in Rolling Stone, "The Machinery of Hope", details what this cycle looks like through the lense of the Obama campaign. Essentially, people sign up to get involved and find themselves empowered to take leadership roles by using new tools available to them on-line. Then they bring in more people. That leads to more money. What you see in the end is a larger, stronger organization, particularly at the ground level. As Simon says in the piece:

"That's the magic of what they've done," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN. "They've married the incredibly powerful online community they built with real on-the-ground field operations. We've never seen anything like this before in American political history."

It's true. All we have to build on is the Dean legacy, which proved to be quite an innovative force in and of itself in 2004. Before I get ahead of myself let me be clear: any candidate of any party can take this approach. In fact, as Joe Trippi said at a recent NDN event, the Dean campaign found its inspiration from John McCain's race in 2000. Furthermore, what about Ron Paul!

Yet look at where we are. Thus far in the 2008 presidential campaign especially, you see organizations being built, funded and strengthened by this cycle of participation. Average citizens are brought into the process in ways we've never seen before. Yet the Democrats are the ones benefiting the most. They have consistently seen record turnout, with single candidates gaining more support in certain states than the GOP candidates combined. You also see a shift in party ID. Then there's the money. This is too simple. Barack Obama: $55 million. Hillary Clinton: $35 million. John McCain: $12 million? And that’s from February alone.

So it is clear that the Democrats on the whole are much better aligned with this politics. Some candidates have some catching up to do, though. Jose Antonio Vargas touched on this in his piece from the Washington Post, quoting Simon saying:

"The Clinton campaign missed the zeitgeist of the moment," Rosenberg says, "and they underestimated the possible reach of Obama's support, and they're paying for it."

While he focused more on the Democratic candidates instead of politics as a whole, David Brooks could be right in saying that we are at a defining moment. Applying the cycle of participation as an indictor of who heads into that moment the strongest, I'd say the advantage goes to the Democrats. And they aren’t stopping while ahead. Remember: “Go to www.hillaryclinton.com”...

Millennials Makeover the Four Ms of Politics

With the showdown primaries on March 4 over and the outcome of at least the Democratic contest still to be finally decided, it is a good time to point out what the 2008 primary campaigns have already made clear about the future of American politics. After this year, the four basic elements of any campaign-Messenger, Message, Media and Money-will never be the same. Those candidates who have adjusted all four of these dials and tuned them to Millennial Generation sensibilities and behaviors have been the most successful candidates in both party's primaries.

Millennials, those Americans born between 1982 and 2003, are the most diverse generation in American history. Forty percent of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American or of some other mix of races and ethnicities. And twenty percent come from an immigrant family. A candidate like Barack Obama, whose bi-racial family and generational roots extend from slave owners in America to Kenyan goat herders and social workers in Indonesia, is not an oddity in their minds but has the model background for an American leader.

Eighty percent of Millennials have done some sort of community service in high school. . Eighty-five percent believe that directly contributing something to the community is an important way to improve it. When Senator Obama traces his experience to his days as a community organizer in Chicago, older generations tend to dismiss it as posturing and beside the point in gaining the experience required to government work. Millennials, by contrast, consider community service just the kind of experience they would like to to put on their resume when they apply for a job. Discounting its importance sounds to them like a dismissal of their own accomplishments. Indeed an examination of the biographies of many of the winning Democratic challengers in the 2006 Congressional elections shows this same penchant on the part of new voters to value a career of service over one spent learning the inner workings of the legislative process. It's also a reason why Senator McCain's service to his country in Vietnam and his stay in the Hanoi Hilton attracts rather than repels this new generation of voters, in spite of the attempts of a feminist icon of the 1960s to minimize the importance of that service.

Millennials have been taught since their parents first sat them down to watch Barney that the best way to approach problems is to find a solution that works for everyone in the group---since everyone is just as good and important as everyone else. The confrontational style of Baby Boomer candidates like Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney strikes them as rude, enough to earn them a time out until they learn how to play nice. By contrast, the unifying message of Barack Obama who suggests, somewhat naively to the ears of older voters, that his solution to the problems of America will be to get everyone around the table to work things out for the good of the country is exactly in tune with the way Millennials have been taught to solve problems. When John McCain distanced himself from Bill Cunningham's typical talk radio ideological rant, he earned the enmity of many of Cunningham's colleagues. But he spoke directly to Millennials who are looking for candidates who refuse to engage in that kind of name-calling.

But McCain, like all of the 2008 Republican presidential candidates (with the possible exception of Fred Thompson) , remained unable to embrace the social networking technologies that are the lifeblood of Millennials' daily lives. Having their children text friends sitting in the same car or "friending" people they barely know on MySpace are common Millennial behaviors that drive parents crazy. But the two most important possessions of any Millennial are their cell phone and their laptop, devices that allow them to stay connected to the Net 24/7. That type of peer-to-peer communication is the center of Barack Obama's media strategy. It has been the key to the organizational strength that Obama has demonstrated in caucuses across the country. Political pundits who still follow the news on the television news shows or in the newspapers don't see the enormous volume of personal communication being generated on MyBarackObama.com, built on the same operating system as FaceBook, until the electoral results once again seem to stun them on any given Tuesday night. Having ceded the lead in peer-to peer-media to the Democrats, especially Obama, rather than almost totally relying on older technologies, like talk radio and slick television commercials, the Republicans risk losing as badly in 2008 as they did to an earlier master of a new communication media, FDR, with his soothing radio voice, in 1932.

The same online engine that is generating all of the offline , grass roots enthusiasm for Obama is also raising money for his campaign in unprecedented ways and in unimaginable amounts. With one million of his friends on his website, Obama has now raised more money from more people than any candidate in American political history. Obama's use of this new media with appeals for small donations almost drove the Clinton campaign into bankruptcy and is likely to create a similar untenable disadvantage for John McCain in the general election. Ironically, it was McCain who first demonstrated the power of the Net to raise a lot of money fast in his aborted 2000 campaign. But that was long before broadband and social networks being accessed continuously all day long became the way of life for so many young voters. Now McCain and his party are forced to attempt to shame Obama into using public financing in the general election. That may be the only way they can avoid the kind of monetary deficits that Democrats and the federal government have experienced in the past.

The outcome of the Democratic contest, let alone the general election campaign is not pre-ordained. Events over the next eight months can cause public opinion to change direction. But the relative ease with which Barack Obama has woven a tightly knit strategy based on a new approach to what the profile of a Presidential candidate should look like; the fundamental appeal the candidate should make to the voters; the way that appeal should be communicated to all voters, but especially young ones; and the resources such an approach can bring to a campaign, makes his candidacy the most likely to succeed, with one possible exception. Hillary Clinton's success in most large states so far suggests that this new alignment of the four Ms of American politics has yet to be fully tested in campaigns requiring more complex organizational efforts over a longer period of time. In Silicon Valley terminology, it is not yet certain that this new configuration of the four Ms can "scale" to the size required to win a national campaign. Both the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania and the general election fight to come should provide the final test of this new approach to political campaigning and definitively establish a new formula for victory in the coming decades.

Morley Winograd and Michael Hais are the co-authors of a brand new book, Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. Come see them at NDN's event on March 12th, "A Moment of Transformation?"

Advertising on the blogosphere!

Walking the walk, NDN is now up with a blog ad to promote our March 12th event, "A Moment of Transformation?" (If you haven't already RSVP'd, do so here.)

We took the advice of Henry Copeland, who recently penned a fantastic memo for our New Politics Institute on advertising online, and are up on a variety of blogs. We'll be tweaking the ad in the days ahead, but for now be on the lookout for this image

A new kind of ad by Barack

To see a whole new kind of 21st century political ad check out the new Obama ad on the main page of the Dallas Morning News running this morning. Don't know how long it will be up there so go now - and it will be hard to miss.

For more on how to use a new whole new generation of tools to improve your capacity to advocate visit the New Politics Institute and our "New Tools" campaign there.

The battle for Ohio and Texas

A Sunday NYTimes piece by Adam Nagourney takes a look at the final strategies and tactics of the two campaigns in the all-important home stretch in Ohio and Texas.

Be sure to note the success the Obama campaign has had it with its google ads, something we talk a great deal about at our affiliate, the New Politics Institute.

Update - Remember California. As I look at Obama's small lead in the final round of Texas polls, I am reminded of California and the excellent campaign the Clinton campaign has run this year in the Hispanic community (from ads to issues to surrogates). Most of the final CA polls had Obama ahead or very close in California. But driven by a huge performance of Hispanics, a group difficult to poll, Senator Clinton won the state by ten points.

Could this pattern repeat in Texas? Could Hispanics deliver her another essential win? And what happens if she wins the popular vote and he the delegates? Going to be a fascinating night on Tuesday.

Update 1 - Two new polls out Sunday have OH and TX too close to call, with Clinton up 4 in OH and Obama up 1 in TX. Tuesday is going to be quite a night.

Update 2: A national AP piece on this consequential battle closes with this passage:

"The Clinton campaign clearly has much more money than they had before, but they are still being dramatically outspent by Obama," said Simon Rosenberg, head of [NDN], a think tank. "And things don't seem to be trending their way and they don't have a lot of tools to deal with it anymore."

The New Era of Distributed Politics

Another whirlwind week, and I want to point out three new examples that appeared to illustrate the new kind of distributed politics that we are lurching towards. That new brand of decentralized, bottom-up, broad-based politics was brilliantly summed up by Joe Trippi at this week’s event on Capitol Hill put on by NDN and the New Politics Institute.

Trippi, the chief strategist behind the 2004 Dean campaign and this cycle’s Edwards’ campaign (as well as a founding fellow of NPI), squeezed down the essence of what is happening in the Democratic race for the nomination. The Clinton campaign, the absolute best, most powerful example of the old model of top-down politics on the Democratic side, is getting beaten by only the second-ever example of the bottom-up new politics model, that of Obama. Watch Joe’s 10 minute exposition of this idea, where he talks about Dean’s campaign being the Wright Brothers, and now, only four years later, Obama is landing on the moon.

And so this week there were three new examples of how that new kind of distributed politics works. One comes from the supporters of Clinton. It’s a fantastic example of how ordinary citizens, without any control or even knowledge of the official campaign (or at least from what it seems), can come together to create moving media with the power to persuade. Check out Hillary Speaks for Me, which is reminiscent of 2004’s “Bush In 30 Seconds” by MoveOn, and creates an infrastructure where anyone can upload 30-second videos about why they support Hillary. It is extremely well done, and given that I have been pointing out many user-generated examples on the Obama side in recent weeks, I want to highlight this first. Bottom-up politics can benefit anyone who tunes into it.

Second is the Superdelegate Transparency Project, created partly by Jennifer Nix, a New Politics Institute Fellow. Jen herself posts about the project elsewhere on this blog so I won’t elaborate on it, but point out a couple things. This is a distributed project among what could be called citizen journalists, or bloggers, to just fill out the details of who the delegates are, who they are currently endorsing, and how the district or state they represent voted in the primaries or caucuses. Simply doing the legwork and shining sunlight in these murky corners both does a journalistic service that the understaffed mainstream media outlets can’t do, but the very fact they are doing the project at all may help change the behavior of the delegates themselves. There won’t be any backroom deals here. It’s all out in the open and out there early. Check it out.

Finally, the mainstream press, starting with the New York Times, “broke “ the McCain and Vicki Iseman story, about his uncomfortably cozy relationship to a lobbyist. I put “broke” in quotes because the blogs had been chewing on this beforehand, but it did take a respectable institution to force it onto the national agenda. However, once that crack in the dike appeared, the distributed forces started the next wave of stories. Check out the Brave New Films effort to broaden the notion of McCain’s friends, with a takeoff of the old television comedy series “Friends.” With the help of some other blogs they help fill out the famous couch with friends beyond Iseman. And they set up a petition process that people can join and virally send around.

And that was just this week. This is a mushrooming process that will continue in the weeks and months ahead. By the time November comes around, the  electorate will be churning with so many new efforts we won’t be able to track them all. Democracy, you gotta love it.

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute

Yes It Can: The Mash-Up Viral Video Takes Off

The “Yes We Can” viral videos pinging around the internet in the last couple weeks have taken “mash-ups” to a whole new level in politics.

Video mash-ups are when you take video produced for one purpose and repurpose it in another context to make a different point. The first big example of this in politics came a year ago with the repurposing of Apple’s classic 1984 Super Bowl ad into a political statement about Hillary Clinton’s national conversation, and a warning about the rise of Obama. We’ve been talking a lot about mash-ups and viral video at the New Politics Institute in the last year, including an event with the creator of that “Vote Different” video.

But the “Yes We Can” by will.i.am and other stars raised the bar dramatically. This took a lot of creative work to blend a new song around the words of Obama from a primary speech. Their efforts have been rewarded with more than 4 million hits on YouTube and countless references on mainstream TV.

Now come the knock-offs and some of them are terrific. If you have not seen them, check out the john.he.is video that takes key passages from McCain’s speeches and has what looks like characters similar to the “Yes We Can” video trying to reinforce his words, but coming out puzzled and angry about McCain’s lines like “bomb, bomb Iran.”

Then there’s the “No You Can’t” video that has rich Americans singing off the Obama speech about how you can’t disrupt their status quo. It ends with the word “Vote” morphing into “GOP.” Very funny.

It’s true that these viral videos may only hit numbers in the 1 to 4 million range rather than the 10s of millions who might see traditional 30-second television ads. But many of these people viewing the viral videos are the activists and opinion leaders and journalists who can leverage it far beyond the numbers. They then send them out to their influential circles of friends and families too.

There are other factors that make these videos more powerful than they may appear on the surface. They can blast far beyond the boundaries of 30 seconds - for example, the “Yes We Can” video is a full four minutes. And it bears reminding, that the cost for distribution is zero. Nothing, compared to millions of dollars to try and force a quick message at TV couch potatoes who don’t’ want to see it, and increasingly, can zip past the ads with their digital video recorders.

And then there is the coolness factor. This is the indefinable quality that, as they say, is priceless. To have a guy from the Black Eyed Peas and his Hollywood friends volunteer to create a video for Obama is cool. To have creative young people all over the internet follow up with their versions is even cooler. Remember, this is America. To be cool is valuable. That translates into politics.

Then again, not all web videos are created equal. Some can really backfire on a candidate too, even if they are devised to help. Witness the “Hillary for You and Me” video which seems like it was created in the 1970s. But then, the 1970s are now hot. Or was that last year?

Peter Leyden
Director of the New Politics Institute.

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