Cyrus Krohn

The political environment and internet tools

The Washington Post last week profiled Republican National Committee eCampaign Director Cyrus Krohn, who has the difficult job of helping to transform a political machine that hasn't been inclined to evolve for some time.  There are two parts to this story that I think are very important to highlight.  I'll hit the second in a following post. 

First, it is important to remember that the political environment has changed in many ways, technological and sociological.  The future will be won by the people who both (a) understand how to connect the new technology with the new social landscape, and (b) can figure out when the tools and social landscape are ripe to be connected.   Drill Here, Drill Now could have been executed two years ago, but it wouldn't have blown up like it did.   Moveon.org began in 1998, but didn't really gain power and momentum until talk of a war in Iraq gave the Left and Moveon.org a cause célèbre - their unifying grievance.

So, Soren Dayton and Michael Bassik are both correct here.

To outside observers, it seems that Krohn has been given more leeway than his predecessors. Under Krohn, GOP.com competes directly with Democrats.org, the DNC's online headquarters, they say. "No doubt it, he's providing a level of expertise that we have not had in the party," says Soren Dayton of the PR firm New Media Strategies and co-founder of TheNextRight.com, a new conservative blog. "This is a guy who comes from the high-tech and media world. He actually understands how people consume media, how people interact with technology."

But Michael Bassik, head of interactive marketing at MSHC Partners, a Democratic communications firm, says Krohn can only do so much. "Sure, you can build the best, most sophisticated, most interactive political site out there," Bassik says. "But at the end of the day, what counts online are the eyeballs. And objectively speaking, it seems that the Democrats are getting more eyeballs, at least right now."

Cyrus Krohn is brilliantly merging a lot of ideas and tools for the Republican Party, and that's a crucial step.  But Bassik is correct that the surrounding environment is inseparably crucial to online success.  When the political pendulum is swinging your way, it's easy to look like a genius.  But when the political pendulum is swinging against you, even a genius is limited in what they can do. 

Ezra Klein makes that point very well in his post, "The Myth of the Unstoppable Adversary".

Still, it is the work done during the difficult times that enables the pendulum to swing back your way.   The Democrats spent their time in the wilderness building an infrastructure - both organic and cultivated - in order to create the political opportunity they are currently exploiting.

Seth Godin recently wrote about this problem...

Are they ready to listen?  Most marketers forget to ask this critical question.  [...]

[In the early 90's], I had published a book about a political issue. An activist's handbook. I had 20,000 copies in my garage when I found out about a large march in Washington. I bought an outdoor booth and trucked the books down to DC. I stood on the Mall in my little booth and watched more than 250,000 people walk by in less than two hours. Every single one an activist. Every single one a demographically perfect match for my handbook. After 100,000 people had walked by and we'd sold only one book, I lowered the price from around $10 to $1 just to prove my point--that it wasn't the book and it wasn't the price, it was the ability of the audience to listen that mattered. This group, in this moment, was there to march, not to shop.

Most people, most of the time, steadfastly refuse to pay attention.

Tools are important, but the larger environment is crucial.  The Right should be focusing a great deal of attention on developing tools and infrastructure that create a better environnment.   If the innovations that people like Cyrus Krohn are creating are going to have a truly profound impact, the Right is going to need the branding/framing/messaging, informational and discipline infrastucture to get us to that next tipping point.

A different view on the left versus right online debate

In the regular debate about about how the right can catch up online, several points are often missed. The first is that the left has developed a movement based on the interconnectedness of people inside the movement. People get recruited, energized, and leveraged. This may or may not be as much a function of larger demographic and political trends, as it has something to do with the netroots specifically.

At the same time, the right has often been better at campaign mechanics, especially in recent years. Our assumption seems to be that if we get enough people to go and vote in this country -- which we still believe is just right of center -- then we can win. If McCain wins, it will probably be because his ideas are basically in line with a just-right-of-center country, while Obama's may not be.

In recent years, our political-technological innovations have focused on turning out normal people at unbelievable levels. In that context, I want to highlight something from Jose Antonio Vargas hints at this in his piece on Cyrus Krohn and the RNC:

[...] Then-Rep. Bobby Jindal was an attractive candidate, Krohn says, and it was projected to be a tight race. For 3 1/2 months, using online micro-targeting and data-matching, he identified a set of voters and turned them out to the polls.

Statewide turnout for the Louisiana race was 46 percent. Of those voters who interacted with Krohn's online targeting -- he won't say how much of the total vote -- 76 percent voted, he claims. Krohn says he's not suggesting that the RNC is responsible for Jindal's win. What it does suggest, however, is that the model could have significant impact on voter turnout, he adds.

Technology should lower the costs of things that campaigns already do, and those lowered costs should allow new ideas and techniques. The 72-hour program massively increased the efficiency of the GOP's GOTV efforts, at the same time that the RNC and Bush-Cheney got better at recruiting more volunteers to do those things.

The Louisiana story makes clear that we likely still have significant advantages here. Our GOTV is almost certainly tremendously more efficient, helped by the things that Cyrus is working on, existing technologies like 72-hour, and non-electoral technology developments. These efficiencies will allow us to stretch our precious GOTV dollars and volunteer time by deploying them where they make the most incremental difference in actually delivering the next vote.

If this ends up being a close election, or a very close election, it is going to come down to electoral technology. Maybe it will be ACORN crashing the rolls and delivering illegal voters. Maybe it will be Cyrus massively increasing turnout and optimizing our GOTV through what he is doing. Maybe it will be just that they recruit and register and vote more people than we do, or vice versa. But my hunch is that if we win a nail-biter, what Cyrus is doing will deserve a big chunk of the credit.

I don't want to downplay what the left is doing at all. We clearly are not competing with them in this space. Social media should give us more opportunities to communicate with voters and future voters alike. And we should be able to exploit the efficiencies and new modes of communication to better organize people.

But in some places, we are doing very, very well. And Jose's story on Cyrus should make that clear.

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