A glimpse of the future

Politico today details the early spending of possible 2012 Republican candidates in building up their online infrastructure.  The groundwork the contenders are laying now gives a good glimpse of how online race for the nomination might play out in two years.

The online campaigns of Obama in 2008, Howard Dean in 2004, John McCain in 2000, and even George W. Bush in 2004 were about creating channels that would most effectively target voters’ enthusiasm through various activities like fundraising, creating campaign events, and recruiting others to support the candidate.

In the context of 2012, that means Newt Gingrich, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney are leading the pack: all three have made heavy investments in online consultants, and have a strategy for building lists and maintaining targeted contact with each person on that list.  Online operations, just like offline operations, depend on recruiting and communication with individuals on as individual basis as possible with the hope that each will later participate in a collective action (i.e., voting).

There are plenty of graphic designers who can make a pretty website and lots of videographers who can make funny or entertaining web videos.  Winning online campaigns are all about the data.  A spokesperson for Gingrich’s 527 sums it up well:

“One of the things we’re really big on here at American Solutions is sending the right message to the right people,” said Tim Cameron, the group’s director of digital operations. “We put a lot of money into our back-end infrastructure.”

Gingrich is deploying online ads across the internet.  Pawlenty is turning his PAC into a portal for supporters to give to other candidates – giving Freedom First good information about what issues matter to which donors and forming a good base of information for Pawlenty’s 2012 run.

Sarah Palin continues to attract excitement, but her online efforts, like her messaging, appears to lack focus; despite large numbers of social network followers she is not investing heavily in data management.  Ditto for Mike Huckabee, whose outreach strategy consists of, according to Politico: “deputizing a volunteer in every state to run a state-specific account for it on Facebook, Twitter and Ning, a smaller social-networking site popular with grass-roots political activists.”

(Note: Ning is no longer a free service.)

This isn’t just about online presences, either; understanding the potential of online outreach is part of understanding what it takes to build a winning campaign.  If these trends continue, look for Palin and Huckabee to have online campaigns that look shiny, draw good support numbers, but fail to launch them out of second tier status and into the midst of legitimate White House contenders.

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