online politics

The Irrelevance of the "Online Base"

Micah Sifry's response to my post (and Mindy's) on the size of the right online brings forth a basic assumption I'm not so sure is apt anymore -- that there is an "online base" that's distinct from the base offline, and from there, to the electorate at large? A few years ago, I know this was the case. Now, I'm not so sure. 

A few years ago, the mark of an online activist was pretty clear: participation in blogs -- as either a blogger or commenter, or membership in (likely multiple) political email lists and a history of donating and volunteering in response to online appeals. 

The rise of social media and the growing ubiquity of the Web as an entry point for campaigns makes the 'net a singular platform for activism -- online or offline. 

Unsatisfied by the political success of the Tea Party movement more broadly, Micah is greatly interested in what its size is, and specifically, what its size is online

 

Again, I'm sorry, but if you're going to tout the Tea Party movement as the embodiment of a wonderful flowering of grassroots activism on the Right, as both Mindy and Patrick rightfully do, you've got to expect that inquiring minds are going to want to know, well, how big is it? How many people are active in it? And you can't wave your hand and say, well, there are too many groups and none of them really are the hub and therefore it's impossible to say how big. Let's look at the metrics.

In 2008, roughly 13 million people joined Barack Obama's email list. That's also the size of his Facebook fan base today, roughly double its size since the election (a counterpoint, Micah, says, to the right-is-dominating-online argument -- though I'd say it's more indicative of Facebook's growth since Palin -- and others' -- numbers have also at least doubled). 

The number 13 million -- roughly 20 percent of the total votes Obama received -- suggests something that transcends activism as we normally understand it, and specifically online activism (however you define that to be different than regular activism). If all you need to do is hit the "Like" button, is it activism? Or is it something more akin to casting a vote, something roughly 130 million people did in the last election? That shows the "online activism" picture getting muddled. You don't need to be an activist, or even terribly savvy politically or technologically, to make your voice heard online nowadays. The tools have gotten so mainstream, and so easy, that the line between an activist and a supporter is blurring. 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we're seeing many candidates whose online fundraising now exceeds their direct mail fundraising. Are these two groups separate and distinct? Has online permanently enlarged the activist pool? Idealistically, we'd like to say yes. But practically speaking, it's probably mostly a matter of grabbing the low-hanging fruit from the offline space who simply find it more convenient to engage online. I would contend that these are no longer two radically different groups of individuals, but the larger base of conservative activists is migrating online. In this way, I don't think you can separate broader political success and enthusiasm from online activism in the way Micah does. 

In 2004, it was easy to have a debate about online activism in a silo. Blogs were relatively small, frequented by at most hundreds of thousands of Americans, and experienced by more only when the media deigned to talk about them. Political blogs were fragmented and difficult to find, not like leaving a stray political comment on someone's Wall or clicking "Like" on a politician because you happen to be on Facebook for two hours a day anyway. 

The nature and scope of online activism has changed dramatically since then, but the outlook of some techno-political pundits who cite Daily Kos uniques as the be-all, end-all of activism has not. We're now at a point where every significant change or insurgent movement in either party is dependent primarily on the mainstream Internet -- Facebook, Twitter, and participation in websites and e-mail lists seeded by offline megaphones like Fox News, MSNBC, and talk radio. The narrowcasting of blogs seems less relevant now, because there are much bigger media and technology players driving people online. This is popularizing online activism and making it indistinguishable from regular activism. 

Sure, there are still plenty of groups that depend primarily on direct mail for their fundraising, but few new groups. Judging from what I've seen this cycle, the Big Shift to online is happening. And just like the early adopter disillusionment that's gripped tools like Twitter and Facebook now that Lady Gaga has taken her place at the head of the table, we're finding that the political Internet isn't just for tech geeks anymore. Lots of regular folks are joining the party. 

 

Personal Hypocrisy

I empathize with Internet politics enthusiasts on the Left who are frustrated by the Right’s rapid online ascendancy. That doesn’t justify an obsession with undermining the online-fueled strength of the Tea Party movement, as Micah Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) and TechPresident.com co-founder, does in this post.

Sifry writes:

I have two theories: first, that even with the growth on the right of the past two years, the online progressive base is still bigger than the online conservative base, and second, that the Tea Party's actual base of support--while large and important--isn't anywhere nearly as big as advertised.

He acknowledges that there is more base enthusiasm for Republican candidates than Democrats this year, but takes pains to prove this is not translating online. His proof? Counter-examples to the chart in this recent IBDInvestor’s piece that shows Republican online properties drawing more interest than similar Democratic properties.    

Compete.com shows DailyKos trouncing HotAir by a wide margin almost all year, except for the month of May (perhaps due to Rand Paul's breakthrough victory in Kentucky?. The same pattern holds when you look at other top right-wing sites, like HotAir, Michelle Malkin, or PajamasMedia.com.

However, this only shows that the most popular liberal blog gets more traffic than several popular conservative blogs, not an overall picture of conservative blog readership. It says nothing about activism levels.

To debunk the strength of the Tea Party movement online, Sifry hones in on the claims of the Tea Party Patriots, one of several “Tea Party” named groups with an online community. This misses the point.

The Right’s strength online hinges on Tea Party activism, but it also includes excitement around the individual campaigns, and the efforts those campaigns are exerting to harness that enthusiasm. It also includes a media mix of enthusiasm from talk radio.

Rise of the Right

When an online movement helped Democrats take the House and Senate in 2006 and the White House in 2008, they had reason to be confident in their online organizing prowess. Many believed this would help secure their place in power for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Yet, just two years later, it’s Republican elected officials, not Democrats, who have institutionalized YouTube communications; Republican Senate candidates have four times the Facebook support of their Democratic counterparts; the conservative base, under the banner of the Tea Party, has used their blogs, Twitter accounts and email lists to mobilize and fundraise their way to victory over powerful establishment candidates. And President Barack Obama, the Web 2.0 community’s great hope for embracing transparency and changing government through online innovation has faltered.

As Patrick Ruffini, my partner at Engage, and I stated in this January 2010 piece, the Right has caught up online. I’d even argue now that the Right has surpassed the Left. This all depends on what and how you measure, but I suggest an equation that includes, not only blog readership or individual Ning groups, but elected official, issue organization, campaign and grassroots activity.

Regardless, the true measure of a movement’s impact hinges on the number of people influenced to mobilize on the ground and vote. By this metric, Tea Party success this year has left little to debate or interpret.  

Sifry, a friend, a liberal progressive, and someone I admire and respect, has focused in the past on showcasing Democratic and Republican advances online in tandem. Yet, this post reeks of sore loser-ism. He couches his post as a heroic attempt to set the media straight. Instead, with a sub-heading “Tea Party Poop,” it comes across as an attempt to belittle.

Enemy of My Enemy

Sifry and I often see eye-to-eye, and here too we agree:

  1. The media tends to muddle the relationship between online activity and offline momentum, often reporting the former as if it has caused, not resulted from, the latter. This occurred during the 2008 election and continues today;
  2. You can’t take the numbers -- Facebook likes, blog traffic and Ning membership -- at face value.

I also agree with a point he has made in the past about money-ed organizations playing a role in Tea Party mobilization efforts, although I remind that they also did in supporting candidate Obama. Yet, neither of these points detract from the calculable rise of the conservative movement since the election of President Obama, made possible so quickly through the digital revolution.

If you truly believe that the Internet democratizes the process, you should have a level of appreciation for what is happening. An open democracy is one whereby all interested comers -- regardless of age, race or income -- may impact the process. You shouldn’t laud the virtue of more rank-and-file participation on one hand, and disparage it on the other.

That is unless you confine personal democracy to your own ideology. In that case, it’s just personal hypocrisy.

Why Twitter Matters & The Left Should Be Nervous

I realize I'm inviting much ridicule from my friends on the left, but I'm going to write this post anyway, and I'm going to leave the title intact - Why Twitter Matters & The Left Should Be Nervous. It's no doubt going to generate some giggles among the online intelligentsia in the Democratic Party. That's ok with me.

I have, for several months now, seen a string of posts and tweets from these same lefty friends that are either mocking or dismissive of the Conservatives nascent efforts on Twitter. Here's one example courtesy of TechPresident's own Micah Sifry.

It's positively quaint to listen to Republicans murmur optimistically about their "dominance" on Twitter. #polc09, #tcot, #p2

The very first time I saw one, it reminded me immediately of comments I had seen and heard before. They were the openly dismissive comments directed by complacent and cocky Republicans at the Democrats efforts online.

I specifically remember more than a few people, myself included, who watched the rise of the online left with initial derision. As late as 2004 and 2005, I heard things like, "The Democrats and their blogs. How's that working out for them? All that effort and how many wins has it resulted in?"

Beginning with Conrad Burns and George Allen, we began to quickly see the results of "those blogs". It's a lesson we failed to heed early on, and it contributed greatly to our demise.

What we failed to recognize was the infancy of an effort to use new technology to mobilize. It was an effort to build a new network and the infrastructure to disseminate a coherent message.

I have argued that the reason the Democrats never mastered talk radio was very simple - they never had to. In modern politics, the insurgent party will adapt to the most interactive (and the most real-time) technology available at the time. In 1992, having lost the White House, House and Senate, the GOP gravitated toward talk radio. Despite it being a broadcast medium, it was the most interactive medium available. It was adapted to facilitate the conversation about the direction of the party and the country.

The Democrats, rising out of the loss in 2000, had to coallesce around a platform. Talk radio, had the Internet not been available, would likely have become the staging area and the rise of the left on talk radio would have been a near certainty. But a funny thing happened on the march toward the AM dial.

With the Internet, blogs and Meetup became the new polis for the exiled Democrats.

Now you could argue that two data points is hardly enough to qualify my central thesis - the adaption of interactive forums by the out party. But keep in mind that Americans detachment from one another and from in-person communities really didn't explode until about this same time. Prior to that, most people who were politically active simply turned to their party and its structures. It's just the last 20 years that have split us from our parties and each other, so we can only look at the data available.

That brings us back to the present day and the Republicans.

Now that we are the out party, we are turning to the Internet to discuss, debate and strategize the party's future. It is no longer, however, simple enough to label "The Internet" as a monolithic thing the way we did with the Democratic use of the medium. The Internet is no longer about websites as it was with blogs and Meetup. The Internet, as it exists today, is more a generic platform for advanced communication services - whether they are site based, text messages, cellular applications, or anything else.

In the world of converging technologies, Twitter represents the single most interactive, most real-time, tool available. Twitter is mobile. Twitter is rapid. Twitter facilitates deep content (via linking) and fast action (via retweets and viral distribution).

For the Democrats that dismiss Republican testing of many and various models of activism on Twitter, you should watch very closely what's going on, rather than simply mocking it. Complacency and satisfaction with your status quo is a slippery slope and it's very easy to fall into the "yes, but what has it gotten them" mindset.

It is likely, I would even say certain, that Twitter, or some next generation concept that builds upon Twitter's framework, will be a central component of the GOP resurgence. It most certainly won't happen overnight. However, I guarantee you will - when you find yourself out of power again - be able to trace the roots of your downfall to this earliest of efforts.

Until then, to my friends on the left, let me say two things. First, we'll keep using Twitter, and you can keep cracking jokes. Second, as long as you do, we'll see you on the other side, soon enough.

Update: Based on further conversation (via Twitter) about this post, I need to clarify a point.  I'm not claiming the GOP is currently "dominant" on Twitter.  That was Micah's reference.  I'm simply looking at the tendency for conservatives to adapt to Twitter faster and easier than they have other online venues.

The left's attitude (represented by Micah's comment) seems to me to be that the GOP is putting all its eggs in the Twitter basket without doing all the other things that the left did to be successful.  My argument is that's a false assumption.  It requires that the GOP mimic the left to advance online.  Just as the left bypassed the right's use of talk radio and went straight on to a different model, I think the right may be able to skip directly past the duplication of the left's infrastructure by simply making use of what are currently the most advanced communications and mobilization tools. I see evidence that many in the right are developing new models in an effort to do just that.

Those new models have not yet become "dominant". My central premise is, however, that many on the left  and right seem to believe we must embrace the left's status quo.  I, on the other hand, believe our salvation will not come in duplicating their model, but in creating a new paradigm for our own activism.

We Should Not Minimize Obama's Fundraising Advantage

Today, the final fundraising numbers of the 2008 election cycle were released, showing Barack Obama climbing to a staggering $750 million haul for the election season. Obama's spending in the general election was $300 million to McCain's $84 million in public funding. Obama outspent McCain by $135 million to $26.5 million in the final two weeks of the campaign.

Several prominent conservatives have sought to minimize the significance of Obama's accomplishment, pointing to this Campaign Finance Institute study showing that Obama's mix of small and high dollar donations was roughly similar to President Bush's in 2004, or pointing to the Obama campaign's poor protections against online credit card fraud.

All of these rationalizations miss the point. Saying that the Obama campaign's fundraising is not noteworthy except for its scale is like saying Mount Everest is not noteworthy except for its height. Online fundraising empowers small donors -- but it also reduces the transaction costs for big donors and enables more people to join the ranks of large and medium donors through multiple donations throughout the course of the election season. Obama's fundraising marked a categorical shift, not so much in empowering small donors, but in building an infinitely scalable campaign that could be dialed up to virtually any level Obama wanted.

Obama Had 13 Million E-mail Addresses and Raised Half a Billion Dollars Online

Jose Antonio Vargas breaks down some monumental numbers.

13 million e-mail addresses. 

$500 million raised online.

6.5 million donations from 3 million donors with an average donation of $80.

3.2 million Facebook friends (to John McCain's 600,000).

2 million My.BarackObama.com profiles created.

One million participants in Obama's cell phone text messaging program -- this is less than the 6-8 million rumored but still massive.

400,000 volunteer blog posts written. 200,000 volunteer events created. 35,000 local and affinity groups created by supporters.

Three million volunteer phone calls made in the last four days of the election through the website without supporters having to step into a campaign headquarters.

The campaign had a full time chief technology officer in addition to a new media director. They had a full time analytics team whose job was to do nothing else but monitor site data.

The First Internet Election

As we draw closed the curtain on this campaign, Nagourney has an Election Day look back on how 2008 changed the way campaigns are run. And not surprisingly, the chief protagonist is the Internet:

“The great impact that this election will have for the future is that it killed public financing for all time,” said Mr. McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt. “That means the next Republican presidential campaign, hopefully a re-election for John McCain, will need to be a billion-dollar affair to challenge what the Democrats have accomplished with the use of the Internet and viral marketing to communicate and raise money.”

“It was a profound leap forward technologically,” Mr. Schmidt added. “Republicans will have to figure out how to compete with this in order to become competitive again at a national level and in House and Senate races.”

This transformation did not happen this year alone. In 2000, Mr. Bush’s campaign, lead by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, pioneered the use of microtargeting to find and appeal to potential new supporters. In 2004, the presidential campaign of Howard Dean was widely credited with being the first to see the potential power of the Internet to raise money and sign up volunteers, a platform that Mr. Obama tremendously expanded.

“They were Apollo 11, and we were the Wright Brothers,” said Joe Trippi, the manager of Mr. Dean’s campaign.

If Republicans conclude that 2008 was simply a mechanical failure -- that it was all about how Barack Obama "used" the Internet or ran an otherwise flawless campaign -- then they will draw the wrong lessons from this year.

Take a close look at Obama's final video released tonight:

None of this would have been possible had Obama not been the cult figure we first saw at the 2004 Democratic convention. Had it been another candidate with the 25-person new media team, the corporate graphic design team in-house, a founder of Facebook on staff, the millions spent on search marketing alone, we still would have applauded, but it wouldn't have been the same. Because there has to be something organically right about it for it to work. This is why some candidates and causes catch on online and others just don't, despite trying every tactic in the book.

The central fact of Obama is the incredible political skill of the candidate. And a campaign was built around him that complemented his strengths. Technology allowed the enormous energy around a candidate like Obama to be harnessed in ways that tangibly helped the campaign, first by dramatically changing the fundraising landscape, and second by making possible a massive influx of volunteer energy (that the publicly funded campaigns of yesteryear simply couldn't have digested). In that it allowed him to reach for the $1 billion spending mark, the Internet was absolutely central to Obama's campaign, even if only a small fraction of that money was spent online. 

But as important as these strategies and tactics were, the fundamental building block is the candidate. The candidates who are successful online are the ones who don't just lead campaigns or political parties -- they lead movements. When they ask people to get involved, they really mean it. Our 2012 candidate has to be comfortable with building a movement. Before a change in strategy can work, our candidates need to change. Layering a good Internet strategy on top of someone running for President of the cocktail party circuit whose campaign only cares about bundling the most big checks in Q1 or Q2 of 2011 will not work. That model died in 2008.

BarackObama.com's Lax Security Opens Door to Online Donor Fraud

I just contributed $5 to Barack Obama.

I didn't want to. Ideally, I could have contributed $0.01 and cost them money. But it was the only way to confirm the root cause of the fraudulent micro-donations to the Obama campaign ("Doodad Pro" for $17,300 and "Good Will" for $11,000).

The Obama campaign has turned its security settings for accepting online contributions down to the bare minimum -- possibly to juice the numbers, and turning a blind eye towards the potential for fraud not just against the FEC, but against unsuspecting victims of credit card fraud.

The issue centers around the Address Verification Service (or AVS) that credit card processors use to sniff out phony transactions. I was able to contribute money using an address other than the one on file with my bank account (I used an address I control, just not the one on my account), showing that the Obama campaign deliberately disabled AVS for its online donors. 

AVS is generally the first line of defense against credit card fraud online. AVS ensures that not only is your credit card number accurate, but the street address you've submitted with a transaction matches the one on file with your bank.

Authorize.net, the largest credit card gateway provider in the country, lists AVS as a "Standard Transaction Security Setting," recommends merchants use it, and turns it on by default. So, in order for AVS to be turned off, it has to be intentional, at least with Authorize.net.

Authorize.net's website describes it this way:

Bankcard processors implemented the Address Verification Service (AVS) to aid merchants in the detection of suspicious transaction activity. The payment processing network compares the billing address provided in the transaction with the cardholder’s address on file at the credit card issuing bank. The processing network returns an AVS response code that indicates the results of this comparison to the payment gateway. You can configure your account to reject certain transactions based on the AVS code returned. For example, the AVS code “A” indicates that the street address matched, but the first five digits of the ZIP Code did not.

The end result? "Donors" like "Doodad Pro" can submit tons of donations totaling well above the $2,300 limit using different bogus addresses (this does clarify how donations from "Palestine", or PA, got through). And the campaign has no way to reliably de-dupe these donations, besides looking at the last four digits of the credit card number, which with 3.1 million donors is an identifier that could be shared by literally hundreds of donors, and is not as easy to eyeball like a common name or address would be. The ability to contribute with a false address, when the technology to prevent it not only exists but comes standard, is a green light for fraud.

One could understand the oversight if prior to the bogus donor story breaking. But you'd think they would have taken measures to step up their donor security in the aftermath of the revelations. Having AVS turned on would have stopped or significantly deterred the fraudulent donations (or, at a very minimum, made them easily detectable). By turning this basic setting off, the Obama campaign invited this kind of fraud and has taken no steps to correct it. 

Thoughts on the First Nomination Won Online

I don't much like Barack Obama, a perception that was reinforced by the speech tonight. But I like the way he won. As a student of politics, I consider it something of a duty to understand the way politicians win, even I'd never support them. In the spirit of John McCain's "Well done," I'd like to single out the Obama campaign for some praise tonight, and then return to our regularly scheduled programming. 

Most of the commentary on the historicity of the Obama nomination has focused on the first African American to win a major party nomination, but Obama's win also signals a shift in the way that campaigns are waged. The broadcast era is ending, and the era of networked politics is beginning.

Without the 'net, Obama couldn't have won the nomination. We could say that about a great many things given the closeness of the primary race, but in many ways all the other explanations flow from it to a great extent. Obama's celebrity -- which remains the central fact of the race today -- was cultivated online with things like the will.i.am video. The resources to wage aggressive campaigns in the post-Feb. 5 caucus states came from the Internet. The Internet was not a shiny toy or a silver bullet. It was the platform on which the Obama campaign's arsenal of silver bullets was minted.

Barack's Boring Website

The common wisdom is that BarackObama.com is not only better at wrangling donations from the faithful, but is categorically better than JohnMcCain.com because it embraces an interactive as opposed to a broadcast model. Time's Michael Scherer put it this way last April:

Even today, if you go to McCain's website, you are more likely than not to find a page that just asks for money and broadcasts the campaign's message, with issue papers, press releases and videos.

By contrast, Obama's website is engineered for engagement: prompts invite people to volunteer, make phone calls and find nearby events. "Don't just fill out this volunteer form and wait," it reads. "Get started on your own." The blog is maintained by a former journalist; the social-networking function is managed by a founder of Facebook.

I don't disagree as far as BarackObama.com's depth of content goes. But let's not kid ourselves. At its core, BarackObama.com is not truly interactive. It is transactional.

The first time you hit the Obama website, you'll get a splash page prompting you to sign up for the email list. This is good practice, as the sign up form can get lost in the message-of-the-day clutter of the homepage. This way, you can change the homepage at will while still focusing on the most important thing: getting new people to sign up.

But the difference on BarackObama.com is this: the homepage above the fold hardly ever changes.

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