A Different Kind of Culture WarBy Edward Cone | Posted 09-21-2007
No sooner had the Republican National Committee struck Internet gold than it traded the bling for lead. This was not a good sign for the GOP heading into the 2008 presidential campaign; getting the culture wrong is no way to win an election.
Michael Turk, former Internet director of the RNC, describes hitting the mother lode: "We put together this goofy video series, with junior-level staffers having fairly frank and candid conversations with politicians," he says. "We were e-mailing out these interviews it was like Wayne's World for politics and the open rates and viewing rates were phenomenal, higher than for the President."
Low-budget, high-buzz: the gold standard for Web video. But when an ABC political Web site took a jab at the series' young hosts, the RNC got nervous. Party honchos pulled the plug, substituting their own leaden take on modern media.
"The communications people were in a complete panic," Turk says. "They overproduced it into the worst possible version, something like Meet the Press. They were so terrified that they neutered its effectiveness." Turk, who ran the Bush/Cheney Internet operation in 2004 and now works for Fred Thompson's Net-savvy shadow campaign, says the old-school mindset is prevalent in Republican circles. "I'm starting to see it with a lot of candidates."
Scratch the surface of most technology stories and you'll find a tale about culture, with the success or failure of an enterprise hinging less on its tools than on its ability to adapt to new ways of using these tools. This applies to political organizations as well. As the 2008 presidential race heats up, all the major campaigns have access to much the same technology. How each campaign uses that technology is in large part cultural, however, and the cultural differences between parties and campaigns recall sci-fi author William Gibson's famous line, "The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."
The current crop of Democratic contenders is more at ease on the Web, especially with newer technologies such as social networking and video. (See "Campaign Promises," August 2007.) Republican strategists can take some comfort in past GOP successes that relied on more structured campaigns and familiar tools such as e-mail and voter call-lists, but the gap between parties exists in quantifiable areas including online fundraising and socialnet activity. Barack Obama, for example, has about twice the number of friends signed up on Facebook as all the GOP contenders have combined.
This gap could narrow over time, and may not be driven by inherent cultural differences between parties or ideologies. Conservatives were the early leaders on the Internet, during the Clinton years, and some of the same political factors that drove that momentum (dissatisfaction with a sitting President, for instance) are now at work for liberals.
Many factors will go into determining the next White House occupant, yet most elections are won and lost at the margins. A superior Net effort alone won't decide the election, but it could make the difference in a close race. For the moment, Internet culture is leaning left. And in politics and technology, culture is critical.