A Different Kind of Culture War

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

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

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

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.

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