Election 2008: The Internet Campaign

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 08-06-2007

Election 2008: The Internet Campaign

Joe Trippi is rolling down I-95 toward Charleston, S.C., headed for a debate he could only have imagined four years ago. A senior adviser to the John Edwards presidential campaign, Trippi helped pioneer Web politics as Howard Dean's campaign manager during the 2004 election. Now, though, Internet campaigning is mainstream. "No one's laughing this time," Trippi says. "There are all these amazing ways for people to connect with a campaign, to follow it, or create their own mini-campaigns, things that didn't exist or barely existed last time."

The July debate, carried live on CNN, featured questions for the Democratic contenders submitted to the YouTube video Web site by people across the country. Afterward, Edwards went online at his campaign site to answer questions sent in via social networking sites, text messages and the Twitter micro-blogging service. The other campaigns, including those of front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, covered the debate at their own sites.

Trippi believes this kind of technology will be a real difference-maker in the race for the White House, and that his party has a big lead in using it. "There is this amazing competition between the Democratic campaigns; nobody is giving an inch," he says. "It's going to lead to an explosive, powerful progressive community online for the general election, with millions of people connected and hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions. The major thrust is engaging voters, creating community around candidacy and getting people to be evangelists for the campaign. It could decide the election."

But not everyone agrees on best uses of technology in politics, with differences often breaking down along party lines. As of early August, for example, leading GOP candidates, including Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were planning not to participate in a September CNN/YouTube debate similar to the Democratic event in Charleston, so that debate may be canceled.

Snubbing YouTube nation is a terrible idea, says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican consultant who worked briefly this year for Giuliani, but he is less enthusiastic about social networks than many of his Democratic counterparts. "Having more Facebook friends won't make you President," he says. "It might tell you something about the enthusiasm of your supporters, but it's just one metric." The issue, he says, is perspective. "The emphasis, especially in the media, and to the exclusion of other technologies, is out of whack."

A former online strategist for the Republican National Committee and Webmaster of the 2004 Bush-Cheney campaign, Ruffini favors what he calls "a mid-tech approach" to campaigns and organizing. What really jazzes him is integrating older technology like phone, television or snail mail, things millions of people already use regularly, with an online approach. "You do it by improving upon existing media," he says, pointing to the "Tele-Town Halls" run by the Mitt Romney campaign in Iowa. These conference calls involve perhaps thousands of people in that caucus universe, but when people on the call respond to prompts—pressing 1 to volunteer, for instance—their action is translated into ones and zeros that the campaign can store and use at will. Everyone is working on these kinds of approaches, Ruffini says, but "I think Republicans may be a little more attuned to it."

Whatever their different emphases, campaigns in both parties are feeling their way toward the same big goal: close alignment of technology efforts with the mission of winning elections. "It's a false dichotomy to divide campaign strategies into bottom-up versus top-down," says Zack Exley, a Democratic consultant who was director of online communications and organizing for the Kerry-Edwards campaign after stints with Dean and the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. Successful campaigns must build large communities and coordinate their activities, letting individuals act independently within the overall campaign strategy.

But technological and cultural obstacles remain. Nobody is sure precisely how social networks translate into votes (see sidebar). Getting candidates and senior staffers to buy fully into an Internet strategy can be a challenge, and some of the basic plumbing needed to integrate applications and share information across organizations is still in development. "A campaign should not be made up of segmented, vaguely competitive subgroups, but the technology hasn't been there to help the campaign staff work with the field organization in a productive way," says Jascha Franklin-Hodge, a partner at Blue State Digital, a software and consulting firm he co-founded with fellow Dean campaign veterans. "The most useful thing is not going to be a specific tool or product, but a model for operating with the tools out there and understanding the value of shared information."

Even in a campaign that kicked off with a series of candidate announcements on the Web nearly two full years prior to Election Day, time is of the essence "It's still an open question whether any campaign will run a truly well-organized Internet campaign on Feb. 5," says Exley, referring to the early primary date shared by big states including California, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey. Franklin-Hodge expects to see "credible strategies and well-coordinated campaigns" emerge during this election cycle, but adds, "Nobody at any level has figured out what the optimum campaign even looks like. It's a year of learning and experimentation."

Next Page: State of the Art

State of the Art

STATE OF THE ART

Six months before primary season and 16 months before the 2008 general election, Democratic candidates are raising record sums of money online and signing up thousands of contacts on social networking sites. Obama led the pack in early August with about 122,00 Facebook contacts—more than twice the combined total of all the Republican candidates combined—and more than 158,000 MySpace friends. GOP candidates lagged their Democratic rivals by large margins in fundraising, too. Small contributions via the Internet have provided Obama, the fundraising leader, and Edwards with about one-third of their funding; small donors (usually defined as those giving less than $200) are prized because they can be tapped repeatedly without violating giving limits.

For the first time, each campaign has hired an experienced professional to develop an Internet strategy. Campaigns also are reaching out to bloggers online and off. Presumptive GOP candidate Fred Thompson has been blogging himself, and the Democratic front-runners appeared in early August at the YearlyKos convention, a new-media-and-politics event that grew out of the powerful liberal Web site Daily Kos. Meanwhile Web video, in its larval phase during the last presidential race, helped shift control of the Senate in 2006 and has become as essential as baby-kissing (see sidebar).

In at least some campaigns, the Internet pros have penetrated the inner circle. "This is the new reality: the Internet people are at the most senior table," says Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife and adviser, herself an early proponent of online campaigning. "Trippi reports to John. It's a straight line. Whenever there is a process of trying to get out a message, or engaging people on an issue, the Internet is honestly the first place we start." Trippi, who works with a full-time Internet staff of eight from Edwards headquarters in Chapel Hill, says the candidate understands the online environment and participates online to a much greater degree than the early 2004 Democratic front-runner Dean ever did.

The Edwards campaign, trailing Clinton and Obama in dollars and the polls, is strongly committed to the Internet for reasons of philosophy and necessity. Other campaigns use the Internet without making it part of their DNA. "Even if they say they give a seat to the Net person, many conversations are happening without that person involved," says Michael Turk, an adviser to Thompson's shadow campaign and former online campaign director for the Republican National Committee and Bush-Cheney '04. Some campaigns seem not to understand the essentials of e-mail list usage. "On Friday night, I got e-mails from McCain, Giuliani and Romney within 20 minutes of each other. There wasn't 2 cents of difference among them, and they were sent at a time when nobody would read them." Turk criticizes McCain for responding to bad news on fundraising and staff turnover by sending out an e-mail filled with what he calls "campaign platitudes" instead of speaking with the frankness expected by Internet users.

Online politics will not reach its potential until overall campaign strategy is planned with the Internet in mind. "When a bank builds its advertising campaign around online banking, it's not the Internet guy pushing it, it's the senior marketing people and the consumer banking, the ones at the top," Democratic consultant Exley says. "In campaigns, the Internet gets delegated and ghettoized." Ultimately, says Ruffini, the campaign manager should be the Internet director and understand the Internet as the essential platform for communication. Even Trippi says his organization is not all the way there yet: "It's an evolution, putting the Web at the center. The problem is that people trained in a top down world—including me—take orders from the top, and that's not the way YouTube and MySpace work. It may take a few cycles to get there."

One measure of success will be the building and benefiting from much larger online communities around campaigns. "In a country of 300 million people, we're still jumping up and down about having 250,000 donors," says Trippi. "We're still scratching the surface. As amazing as the tools are, we ain't there yet."

Next Page: Detail Work

Detail Work

DETAIL WORK

Political technology is a subculture unto itself, with many consultants and vendors as partisan as their clients. "We want Democrats to win," says Jim St. George, a principal at Voter Activation Network (VAN), a company that hosts electronic voter records for state Democratic parties; the parties make that data available to the presidential campaigns. St. George says the shared purpose among companies in what he calls "the Democratic family" (including Blue State Digital) makes it easier for vendors to integrate with each other.

VAN is working with other IT service providers and vendors to build application programming interfaces that will surround the basic voter file with data from other applications–a person's history as a donor or an activist, for example–and make it all accessible in one place. The idea is classic business intelligence, connecting the right people the right way at the right time, and ultimately to turn people out on voting day. "When you go to a house in Iowa, you should know if the person has given to a campaign, so maybe you talk about volunteer or fundraising opportunities instead of their vote, or even not knock on that door," says Blue State Digital's Franklin-Hodge. "Maybe a strong supporter who promises to vote hasn't given, so you change your approach on e-mail. But you need systems integrated and talking together to do that kind of intelligent targeting."

That level of integration can't happen fast enough for either party. Whatever Internet strategy best suits a campaign, it won't be fully effective until the basic connections are in place. And yet connecting all parts of a campaign, says St. George, presents "a meaningful challenge. I think we see where the solutions are, they are largely sketched out, but we're not there in every case." Franklin-Hodge concurs: "There is nothing approaching standardization or a turnkey software solution or strategy when it comes to integrating field and campaign operations."

The failure of the Dean campaign to integrate thousands of Internet-inspired volunteers who flooded Iowa in 2004 has become a cautionary tale. More successful was the 2004 Bush campaign, which tightly integrated its voter files with an extranet used by field offices and its own Web site. "We had a very complete picture of what we needed to do and where we stood," says Turk. "Everything online was aligned with our strategic goals." The campaign used microtargeting, a software-enabled process that matched consumer data to individual voter file records and built tools that matched volunteers with prospective voters who fit similar profiles.

That second Bush campaign, though, had two years and a lot of money to build its systems, and was not especially focused on newly emerging social media. Now, campaigns are all over the map in terms of organization and focus. Some have chief technology officers, others put technology decisions in the hands of strategists who lack technology experience. But none of them can afford to waste time on the wrong back-office system. "If you put in these applications after the work flow is established and tell people to do things a different way, you have a problem," Ruffini says. "You need that emphasis at the beginning of the campaign." Says Turk, "I don't know if any of the presidential candidates this year will build something comparable to what we had in '04 by February. Next November is more likely."

And there are some problems that technology will never solve. "Just because you've built an amazing network to support your candidate, it doesn't make you immune to Kryptonite," says Trippi, who saw the "Dean Scream" remixed and repeated endlessly across the Web. "If you say something stupid the week before the caucus, your network may not support you anymore. The Net is not so sticky that it will stick with you through anything. If you live by the Web, you can die by it."