The National Journal has a sneak peek at the NRCC’s new, Buzzfeed-esque website, set to launch sometime in the next few days. Since the dawn of 2013, the NRCC has been quietly and not-so-quietly doing some good things to get House Republicans (and prospective House Republicans) positioned well for 2014 - rootsHQ has a good write-up of that.
On the design side, though, check out the lack of traditional colors:
Contrast that with any of the other alphabet soup committees on either side. There’s occasional splashes of black and yellow, but mostly red, white, and blue. The NRCC is trying to stand out from those sites, and the early peek suggests they’re doing it right.
This should especially help drive donations and activism on behalf of Republican candidates. The cynical analyst might point out that the only people who will visit a party committee website is someone with a keen interest in politics. The average citizen won’t look to the NRCC as a destination for content, though they might see content in other venues like Pinterest or Facebook. But those with a keen interest in Republican politics want something different from the party after the previous two Presidential elections when old white guys didn’t do so well. They want a different tone, and something they can believe in. By showing a fresh, new look – combined with the more aggressive and pop-culture-influenced messaging strategy they’ve been sharpening for a few months – the NRCC can satisfy the thirst among the activist class for a fresher look and feel.
America has plenty of elections, from the crucially important annuals like the Oscars or the meaningless Presidential elections that we only bother with every four years. In many of them, online networks and social media can predict results – winning candidates tend to be mentioned more on Twitter or liked more on Facebook.
While some will jump to the conclusion that online chatter will drive the support that pushes a candidate over the edge, that’s an over-simplistic reading of the situation. Social media posts are tea leaves of human behavior, but not usually the initial driver. It’s worth watching data trends and extrapolating results, but trying to create those data trends to ensure a specific outcome is a waste of time. Daniel Day Lewis didn’t win an Oscar with social buzz, he won by making the legislative posturing surrounding the passage of the 13th Amendment interesting and engaging. He didn’t even have to slay any vampires, so that was good too. Similarly, online activity follows good political candidates, it doesn’t create them.
(Sidebar: What kind of a sick joke is it that Lincoln Motor Company is a subsidiary of Ford?)
If the correlation between online data and reality was more direct, according to Google we’d all have the flu by now.
Two seemingly unrelated pieces of patriotism struck me as oddly similar this week. The first was, obviously, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The second was the not-quite-safe-for-work homage to George Washington from cartoonist Brad Neely.
Neely’s work is kind of out there, but for those who share his sense of humor it’s spot on. (A sample line: “And we danced, like those people in the hyper-tight light of fried chicken commercials!” Seriously, what does that even mean?) Even with limited exposure in venues like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Neely’s two or three minute videos are especially suited to a YouTube audience.
Obviously, the Navy SEALS who took down bin Laden crafted a much more significant piece of work on Sunday. Their achievement, though, was a reflection of a changing military environment just as Neely’s videos reflect a changing media environment.
The major military conflicts to stop terrorism after September 11 targeted nations – specifically, Afghanistan and Iraq. The plan was to smoke out terrorists by pressuring state sponsors of terrorism. We found that the strength of our armored columns had limited effectiveness confronting the independent contractors who made up Al Qaeda’s network. We could contain the snake, but we couldn’t do the one thing we set out to do.
It’s significant, then, that the bin Laden kill mission was set up by intelligence and espionage, and executed by a couple dozen elite servicemen. There was no invasion of Pakistan, simply a precise action focused on a single piece of property within the country. One can’t help but suspect that had our leaders not announced the mission’s success, the rest of the world might never have known bin Laden was dead.
A small, elite unit was all it took to snuff out the world’s leading terrorist. George Washington (who crossed the Delaware for a surprise attack) would be proud.
President Obama’s first campaign event kicked off on Facebook this afternoon just a few hours after Micah Sifry at TechPresident did a basic overview of the online landscape of for the 2012 race thus far.
Sifry’s attention-getting headline – “It’s not Facebook, It’s the Data, Stupid” – seems to be an indictment of social networks. But his key point is that knowing the audience is more important than having thousands (or even millions) of friends, followers, or likes. It’s a point that many have made since 2008 repeatedly, yet it isn’t repetitive. There are still folks who believe that online success is measured by the easiest metrics of Facebook and Twitter, and not in the more difficult (and final) measurement of votes on election day. Ultimately, success or failure of the online campaign is tied to the success or failure of the overall campaign:
Facebook and other third-party social network platforms aren’t the central battlefield. It’s data and targeting and figuring out how to use online strategies to enable motivated volunteers to identify, persuade and get out the vote.
Sifry does miss an important shift in voter engagement, though. He downplays Facebook, noting that the Obama 2012 effort still has the advantages of the MyBarackObama.com networking infrastructure left over from 2008 (with roots stretching back to the nascent Howard Dean effort in 2003). But that campaign architecture is outdated if it doesn’t work with Facebook.
Consider that in the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, social networking was a varied market. Friendster, MySpace, AIM, Friendfeed, Twitter, and of course Facebook all had significant shares of the market at one point or another. Now, Facebook is the unquestioned market leader. What’s more, Facebook is built as a platform for other services. For instance, the biggest social network to gain traction since the Obama campaign, Foursquare, allows you to sign up for their service by using your Facebook log in.
There’s no room for MyBarackObama.com in the modern online media and networking environment unless it works seamlessly within the Facebook interface. If the Obama campaign tries to copy 2008 tactics in 2012 they will fail.
Sifry talks glowingly about the Facebook apps deployed by the Pawlenty and Obama campaigns – and rightly so, because these little programs are monumentally important in bridging the gap between social networking success and data management. Liking a page is a tangential connection, that can be severed easily and surrenders little information; running followers through an application that allows them to submit contact information and self-identify their interests and issue priorities is much more powerful.
The idea that activity on Facebook is separate from data management is a recipe for a losing campaign; the winner in 2012 will have both working together. (And despite the attention-grabbing headline, Sifry seems to get that.)
Since it was no secret that President Obama would run for re-election, Republican opponents had no reason to be slow in their response. Tim Pawlenty took the first crack today with his newest video, “A New Direction“:
Pawlenty’s immediate, polished, and pithy video response shows keen preparation and intelligence. The fact that he was the only Republican challenger in a position to make a video like this is one more reason one more reason he was smart to form his exploratory committee when he did.
Check out the contrast in style between Pawlenty’s video and the Obama announcement:
Pawlenty’s response mimics his previous trailers/videos, with thunderous background music and a serious tone. Recognized voices of the left (like Paul Krugman) are skillfully used to point to the flaws in Obama’s policies, and the candidate (or candidate-to-be, officially) is the star. Since the knock on T-Paw has been that he’s too bland and “Minnesota Nice” to rile up and motivate voters, the stirring rallying cry is his way of making the election seem like the fulcrum on which the lever of history will turn (or something like that) and positioning himself as the Man Our Times Cry Out For.
Meanwhile, Obama’s laid back video focuses on volunteers. The criticism that Obama is self-centered and self-aggrandized is counterbalanced with the low-key collection of individuals talking about what they can do to re-elect the President. If fact, Obama doesn’t even appear in the video, though he did “send” the email to supporters that announced the video. Significantly, the first three supporters hail from North Carolina, Colorado, and Nevada – three traditionally red states that Obama carried in 2008.
The different styles reflect two different audiences. Obama and his campaign handlers know that his announcement video is going to make the evening news, whether it’s a thoughtful call to supporting the policies of the last two years or the President delivering an autotuned address about the wonders of Friday. (Actually, that second option would probably get an awful lot more press, but in a not-as-good kind of way.) So his video is directed at the people who put him in office: the ones who made phone calls, knocked on doors and urged friends and neighbors to schlep out to polling places. The video attempts to frame his re-election as every bit the grassroots movement as his 2008 election, despite the vast advantages of incumbency.
(Also worth noting is how one Obama supporter, Ed from North Carolina, echoes an old George W. Bush talking point from 2004: “I don’t agree with Obama on everything. But I respect him and I trust him.”)
Pawlenty’s team also knew that the President’s announcement would be guaranteed coverage. So his video is built to take advantage of that press exposure – and earn coverage of his own to help lift his name recognition numbers.
The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month. The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real. It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs. It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s. The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived. Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.
Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success. What has given the Onion its staying power?
The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution. It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email. When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.
There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content. The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth. The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows. None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend. Funny always came first – and the money followed. Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.
In a post on Pundit League yesterday, I followed up on last week’s best political videos of 2010 with another list. You could call them the worst political videos of 2010, but that doesn’t really do justice to how bad they were. These videos missed their marks so badly that you couldn’t help but send them to friends or post them to Facebook – entries included Dale Peterson’s angry, minute-long rant about why he should be Alabama’s next Ag Commissioner, a Florida state representative’s Kenny Loggins ripoff, and (of course) Demon Sheep.
After I finished the post, I noticed a running theme in the five worst political videos of 2010 that wasn’t present in the five best: each of the “bottom five” were official campaign videos (and, significantly, only one of those candidates won). In contrast, only two of the “top five” were released by campaigns. That isn’t surprising; judgement is often clouded in the stress of an election campaign, and some candidates simply stumble. Those on the outside looking in sometimes have a clearer head and are able to drive points home more directly.
Another common thread was length. The “bottom five” averaged 2:18 each, while the top five made their points in an average of 1:03 – less than half the time. That figure is not insignificant: 40% of online viewers abandon videos within a minute.
This week, YouTube announced their top videos of 2010. In a post over at Pundit League, I followed up with my Top Five Political Videos of 2010.
My top five is far less scientific than YouTube’s, and for good reason: while YouTube’s list is a Casey Kasem-style countdown of the videos that had earned the most views, my list ranks videos based on significance. In other words, I’m wasn’t trying to measure videos based on their impact on the campaign, but rather use the videos as a barometer of what went on in 2010.
In fact, online video offers a glimpse into the big story of every election cycle since 2004:
2004: This Land – Pre-YouTube, JibJab’sWoody Guthrie send-up featured President Bush and John Kerry neatly summarizing campaign themes. Bush claimed Kerry looked like Frankenstein, Kerry said Bush was a right-wing nutjob. That the close election turned as it did was evidence that Bush’s accusations rang truer with the electorate.
2006: Macaca – George Allen could very well have been the Republican candidate for President in 2008 if he hadn’t slipped up and unwittingly used a word that may or may not be an ethnic slur. As it was, Allen became the symbol of a Republican establishment so cloistered and out of touch they could point to the one guy at a rally who was holding a video camera and say something offensive.
2008: Yes We Can – Between this independent video and Shepherd Fairey’s “Hope” illustration, the 2008 Obama was smart enough to seize on creative elements produced outside the campaign structure. From early in the primary season, the Yes We Can video established the Obama candidacy as more than a simple election effort, but as a once-in a generation opportunity to change politics as usual. More than any online network or social media outreach, the core theme of a new and different kind of politics growing up added excitement and motivation to Obama’s support.
2010: A Generational Choice / Rep. Bob Etheridge covers the Who – Marco Rubio captured the themes of tea party movement in his impassioned web commercial for his successful Senate bid. And Bob Etheridge’s hilarious confrontation of an investigative student underscored the Democrats’ arrogance, comfort with power, and lack of connection with voters.
Notably, all videos on this list save Senator-elect Rubio’s “A Generational Choice” were produced outside of the “official” campaigns, coming from interested and passionate citizens; in fact, two captured politicians in moments when they let their guard down. Yet intentionally or not, each video captured an important element of the election cycle. Elections aren’t (usually) won or lost based on a two-minute internet video; but video can act as a signpost and give some indication of how a campaign is going.
One interesting sub-plot to come out of Saturday’s Rally for Sanity is a minor feud between online communities who carried the torch for the rally and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are decidedly apathetic about the role online organizing had in making their rally a success.
Much of this may stem from some rally-goers/rally-supporters misunderstanding that, although event was politically-themed, it was essentially a free concert featuring comedy and music. The message Stewart delivered in his self-important address at the end was more critical of the media than any other institution, and attempted to be inclusive of all political leanings in urging respect and courtesy. Sure, it probably would have gone over better if it had come from someone who doesn’t make a living ridiculing other people, but that’s another topic.
The point is that despite Stewart’s 12-minute rant at the end, this was not an important event. It was a fun event. There was no call for participation, and many of the signs in the audience were more political satire than political commentary.
Despite the idea of some on the progressive side that this was a call to action and the flash point of a counter to the Tea Party, it really was the Million Meh March for people who just wanted to have a good time. Online communities may have helped advertise for it, but Stewart and Colbert’s lack of gushing thanks is not worth getting worked up over.