Activating the base so the base activates others

Karl Rove released a brief late last week which demonstrated how over simplistic the idea of “turning out the base” is.

The phrase is political shorthand, but it makes it sound like each election turns on whether dyed-in-the-wool Republicans or Yellow Dog Democrats actually show up to vote.  But as Rove points out, analysis of election results in 2010 and 2008 demonstrate that stalwarts of each party showed up to the polls.  So John McCain’s poor showing in the Presidential election could not be chalked up to Republicans sitting at home, right?

Well, not quite.  Those who strongly identify with one party or another probably do so because of an interest in politics, and are most likely to vote no matter what.   A lack of excitement about a candidate manifests itself in other ways – borderline activists are less likely to go to rallies, make phone calls, or knock on doors if their candidate isn’t exciting.  They’ll still vote, but they’ll do little else to convince others to vote along with them.  Rob Eno of the excellent Massachusetts blog Red Mass Group sums up the need for a good infrastructure based on local activists; that type of activism doesn’t happen if “the base” doesn’t feel like a candidate really represents them.

All of which adds up to less outreach to independents – who are, says Rove, the real collective fulcrum of each election.

Strasburg: Obama or Palin?

Merry Strasmas!  With California, Arkansas, South Carolina, and other states taking a turn as centers of the political universe, Washington, D.C. is free to be the center of the baseball universe today thanks to Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg, has little professional baseball experience, yet is already the standard-bearer for his team.  In that way, he’s a little like the 2008 versions of both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

DC likes to claim to be a secular town, but it’s a town that looks for saviors almost constantly.  Whichever political party is out of power and seeking a way back in looks for the Chosen One who can at once articulate his or her side’s philosophy while appealing to wide demographics of the electorate.  The list of would-be saviors is truly bipartisan: Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson, Wesley Clark, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain have all been set up at various times in the last decade and a half to ride in on the white horse and save their party from ruin.  Stephen Strasburg’s role as the savior of a franchise coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons and mired in last place is appropriate for the dialect of his new home town.

Having been mostly dominant in a quick ascendancy through the minors, Strasburg certainly looks like he belongs on the next level – just like both Obama and Palin looked like they were ready for the big stage of national politics in easily winning a Senate seat and a governorship, respectively.  Both stumbled a bit out of the gate – allowing interviewers or non-scandals to take them off message.  But Obama was prepared and came back from early hiccups to win his primary and, eventually, establish the perception of polished confidence.  Palin never really got on track, and her debut on the national stage seemed rushed.  Accounts of John McCain’s Vice Presidential selection process seem to confirm that she was rushed through the minors.

When Strasburg, who has been pitching professionally for less than a year, toes the rubber tonight, the Nationals will hope he is a player whose time has come, albeit earlier than most expected, and who will trust his stuff through the inevitable early struggles.  They will hope they haven’t given the ball to a pitcher who isn’t quite ready for the big leagues.

They will hope for the pitching equivalent of Barack Obama.  They will not, however, want Barack Obama actually pitching.

Location, location, location

The 2012 Presidential race is still a couple years away, but the early contenders are already beefing up their online efforts.  That makes it a good time to start asking what the 2012 online campaigns will look like.  The National Wildlife Federation is doing some cool things with location-based technology, and the contenders to the Oval Office would be wise to take notice.

Between social networks based on where you’re at (Foursquare, Gowalla) and the GPS-enabled smartphones that make these applications portable, location data will be important eventually to the campaign that invests the intellectual resources in it.

E-commerce dawned in the late 1990s, and in 2000 John McCain became the first candidate to raise significant amounts of money online.  In 2004, the internet offered a way to link people with common interests; the Howard Dean campaign (and later the Bush Campaign) responded with programs that helped activists find each other and organize local events.  In 2008, MySpace and Facebook allowed people to easily share content with friends; the Obama campaign’s online efforts were based around that same concept of virality. Successful campaigns change to reflect internet trends.

A campaign might use any number of location-based tactics.  Activists could be alerted to events in their area.  A campaign could offer contests for volunteers using Foursquare to check in at  headquarters or to recruit friends to attend rallies and other activities (not the least of which is voting).  Advocates could request campaign materials (like lawn signs) or instantly share stories through smart phone applications.

There’s no guarantee that the first campaign to take advantage of this technology will win, of course – McCain, Dean, and more recently Ron Paul  all proved that success online doesn’t always translate to the ballot box.  But for those looking for emerging technologies to gain an advantage, this is one place to be.

(Get it?  Place to be?  Location?  Aw, shut up.)

3 Ways the Democrats Won on 4/15

And that isn’t counting a penny of tax money, either.

Yesterday was a big news day. Tea partiers marched here in DC and elsewhere to define their core principle: that the federal government is too big, that high taxes siphon money out of the economy, and that government programs tend to make matters worse, not better. Overall, yesterday’s messaging seemed positive for limited government activists.

But the opposition was smart, too.  Nationally, Democrats drove three well-timed news stories – two by President Obama, one by Sen. Harry Reid – that added up to a communications masterstroke.

1.  President Obama announced we’re goin’ to Mars (eventually).

This was a good story to grab headlines on the other side of the tax day protests.  Instead of trying to directly engage, President Obama simply highlighted a use of taxpayer money that many folks from both sides of the aisle agree with: scientific research.  The space program specifically creates tons of jobs not only in research but in manufacturing the components of Major Tom’s tin can.

You can’t answer a call for lower taxes with the stance that taxes are just fine.  However, showing a positive use of tax dollars can undermine that message.  It wasn’t a happy coincidence – the Florida trip has been on the President’s schedule for weeks, if not months.

There’s another, more subtle attempt at differentiation here, too.  The announcement of an advanced science program will now be played on the same newscast with footage of grassroots protesters – citizen activists who, in their haste to participate, misspell signs and don’t have a staff of speechwriters to help them articulate their views.  Without actually saying it, Obama gets to present his side as better-educated and smarter than the knee-jerk, anti-tax tea partiers.

2.  President Obama signed an executive order permitting hospital visitation rights to same sex couples.

This is another point of differentiation – and a chance to bait his opponents.  Most of the focus of tea party activism has been on fiscal policy, and many Americans tend to agree with the most conservative segment of the electorate that the government spends too much and spends it wastefully.  For social issues, there is less common ground, and yesterday’s announcement has the potential to begin peeling off moderate voter support from the Republicans.

Making this announcement on a busy news day means that there won’t be much media discussion – unless someone at a tax day rally goes off message, and gets captured in a YouTube video proselytizing about moral codes.  Then it feeds the idea that tea parties are run by intolerant bigots.  It’s a win-win for Obama – either his announcement slips almost completely under the radar, or it’s a chance to take shots at the other side.

3.  Sen. Reid announced that financial reform package will hit the U.S. Senate floor next week.

The Democratic talking points for November are already written: Republicans are the party of Wall Street.  They will attempt to make this distinction with a bad financial services reform package scheduled to hit the floor next week.

Like the other two examples, Reid’s announcement serves to distinguish the Democrats from limited government activists by calling for a larger government for an ostensibly good cause – safeguarding consumers and investors.

There’s also a great strategy in this timing that has nothing to do with tea parties but everything to do with tax day.  The folks who would be most likely to oppose this legislation would be financial professionals, who understand that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  If they had the time to do it, they might rally their customers and colleagues, making the case that the bill would actually hurt efforts to keep the players in the financial system honest, and mobilize a strong push against the bill.  They haven’t had time, of course, because over the last two weeks, financial professionals have been working around the clock at their day jobs – because yesterday was April 15.  So when the bill hits the floor next week, they won’t be ready to stir up opposition.

Gearing up already?

Passion is important in politics because it helps win over the uncommitted moderate voters; excited activists are the ones making phone calls, dragging people to the polls, and giving one side the image of a winner.  In 2008, then-candidate Obama’s campaign enjoyed demonstrable shows of emotion from his supporters.  In 2010 that excitement is trending toward the right – so far.

But it isn’t to early (or too late) for the President and his allies to begin letting some air out of that balloon.  The further he can create the perception of a gulf between conservative activists and the values of moderate voters, the more Republican chances in 2010 and 2012 will deflate.

That’s one small URL for the GOP…

The Republican Party caught plenty of deserved flack for the hamfisted rollout of its website this year, but in the last couple of days there has actually been a pretty innovative development from the online right: the URL shortener.

There are plenty of these handy devices for condensing website addresses, but is different because it frames every website with banners directing users back to the sign up and donate sections of the GOP website.

Playful pranksters have used the link to put the GOP brand around less-than savory sites.  And, as the Bivings Report notes, the banners take up lots of space and have no obvious method for users to get rid of them.

But it’s also significant that this is not, as of yet, an official RNC project.  Remember that during the 2008 campaign, the Obama campaign benefited from user-generated videos and iPhone applications.   Even their MySpace page was started by a supporter.

Political movements which are successful online or offline have major components which are created by activists outside of the major party.  That makes projects like important benchmarks to measure grassroots innovation – even if it isn’t perfect.

App shoot

Upon reflecting more about recent, high-profile rejections from Apple’s App Store, one thing is becoming apparent: with the iPhone/iPod platform is gaining popularity, more developers are investing time and resources writing software for it only to see their creations rejected.

The closed-door approach makes sense for Apple – since their platform is the first of its kind, any questionable use would reflect back on their highly-recognizable brand rather than an anonymous developer.  If Saturday Night Live legend Garrett Morris developed a game for the iPhone called “Gonna Get Me a Shotgun and Kill all the Whities I See,” Apple would bear the brunt of the protests for allowing it rather than Morris.  (When Morris famously – and hilariously – sang that line on the air in 1976, the NBC switchboard probably got more calls than Morris’s home phone.  By citing the actual sketch, do I avoid somehow being called a racist for quoting it?)

But the closed door has implications for potentially revolutionary uses of mobile technology.  In 2008 a developer created an excellent application for the Obama Campaign, allowing volunteers to prioritize their contacts for get out the vote calls.  If the time and effort invested in creating an app is possibly wasted, how will small, volunteer-driven campaigns for local or Congressional offices – the types of campaigns who could really use the technology – justify exploring the possibilities of the platform?

Is this why there are so many Viagra ads on the baseball playoffs this year?

A new study reports that young male voters for non-winning 2008 Presidential candidates experienced drops in testosterone levels after the results were announced.  Males who voted for Barack Obama maintained higher levels of testosterone than they otherwise would at night.  Aside from being a little funny, it underscores a simple truth – politics is about more than just rational debates over ideas, but also about emotional and physical reactions to candidates.  Put more simply, politics is of the heart at least as much as it is of the mind.

Trend of 2008: Pop-Politics

Barack Obama’s election was historic on many levels; aside from being elected America’s first black President, Obama raised more money for his campaign alone than had ever been spent by all candidates running in any previous Presidential campaign. Incredibly, he did all this just four years after first popping up on the national radar by having an innovative campaign that used online tactics to achieve offline results.

But beyond his tactics, Obama benefited from an intersection of pop culture and politics. Viral videos like “1984,” “Obama Girl,” and “Yes We Can” underscored that much of the hype and excitement around Obama came from beyond political circles: none of these internet famous videos was produced by the campaign, but both served to underscore campaign messages. (In the case of “Yes We Can,” the Obama campaign almost immediately promoted the video on its own site.)

The need to create excitement around a candidate is nothing new – just watch any footage or read any account of a successful campaign rally since the founding of the Republic. But the funny, creative videos that supported Obama without overt political messages, allowed the campaign to push the storyline that Obama was wildly popular. The campaign itself paid careful attention to imagery, creating a website with the visual qualities of popular online communities rather than traditional campaign sites. Even the “O”-shaped bumper stickers were different from the usual, run-of-the-mill rectangles that usually pop up in traffic every four Octobers (including those used by his opponent).

These tactics helped simplify Obama’s messages to a broad range of voters, allowing his official campaign to avoid discussions of policy specifics through much of the campaign – discussions which could only serve to drive away voters attracted to Obama’s celebrity status.

The Obama campaign’s strategies were ultimately the same as any other campaign’s: Supportive voters were identified, contacted, and encouraged to get to the polls. And they did it well; when the votes were counted on November 4, the victory was decisive. But Obama looked like a winner long before Election Day thanks to non-traditional message-delivery vehicles which simplified his messages and took his candidacy from politics to pop-culture. And that can only help those outreach efforts.

Simple messages have always been better in politics, which is why the advent of pop politics is a “trend” and not a story, development, or event. But it’s an increasingly relevant trend, especially for conservatives and Republicans grappling with their messages in 2009, 2010, and beyond. Since voters now face so many information sources competing for their attention, a message delivery vehicle which entertains is more likely to be successful.

Bookmark and Share