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.

Viva la revolucion

Patrick Ruffini, one of the consultants who helped Scott Brown take back the people’s seat in Massachusetts, wrote an extensive wrap-up of the campaign’s online fundraising in the last month.   The whole thing is a good read, but his assessment of the recent online innovations of each party at the very end is intriguing:

As we have written in the pages of the Washington Post, during the right’s online wilderness years (this “wildnerness” being the mirror image of being in power in Washington) many pundits wondered whether the right was at a permanent structural disadvantage online… [N]ow that the right has needed to use grassroots tools to break the Democratic lock-hold on Washington, they’ve done it in a big way. And it’s happened much faster, and with greater early electoral success, than the evolution of the liberal “netroots” which didn’t really take off until the end of Bush’s first term.

Much has been written about the Massachusetts race, and most of it is an exaggeration.  But the studies of Brown and Virginia’s Gov. Bob McDonnell successful use of online tactics in winning campaigns underscores a running theme – like President Obama, their innovative campaigns were seeking to win an office held by the other party.  All three were on the outside looking in.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.  Political parties are made up of politicians, so of course they tend to be risk-averse – unless they have no office to risk.

Text donations to…

In the wake of the wildly successful mobile fund raising campaign for earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, my Mom emailed me with a thought: could candidates do the same thing to raise money for a political campaign.  The answer: while this method worked very well for Haiti, it may be more trouble than it’s worth for 2010 candidates.

The Rothenberg Political Report discussed some of the regulatory hurdles earlier this week:

First of all, candidates and campaign committees need to collect basic information about all donors including their name, address, and occupation. This is not necessarily prohibitive but candidates would need to establish a “best effort” to obtain the information after the contribution, according to a Federal Election Commission spokesman. This is more of a practical roadblock than a legal one.

Rothenberg also points out restrictions on corporate giving directly to campaigns, which would make it necessary to have an intermediary firm collecting and processing donations.

Then there’s the campaign cost: while the carriers likely waived any fees they would have collected for the Haiti effort, a similar fund raising program might result in charges of up to 40% of the donations, according to one industry source.  That means for every $10 you donate, a campaign might see $6 – and less if there’s an third party processing the campaigns.  Considering the up-front costs of creating the program and sending the texts, the program would have to be wildly successful to pay for itself.

Mobile and text messaging will continue to be important conduits for get-out-the-vote efforts and other messages from a campaign direct to voters, but the infrastructure to turn your cell phone into a “donate now” button isn’t there right now.

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 GOP.am URL shortener.

There are plenty of these handy devices for condensing website addresses, but GOP.am 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 GOP.am important benchmarks to measure grassroots innovation – even if it isn’t perfect.

To Høyre and back

I’m just back stateside after an all too brief trip to Oslo, Norway, where I spoke to activists from the Norwegian Conservative Party, Høyre, about online campaigning.  With parliamentary elections approaching this September – and the party performing poorly in recent polls – they had the same question being asked right now by any American campaigns, companies, and brands: How can we capture the wave of online excitement that Barack Obama rode to the White House?

One of the conference attendees asked a particularly helpful question: when deciding how to budget time, how should time be divided between online outreach and good old-fashioned knocking on doors.  The answer, of course, is that there is no substitute for the things that get you votes – offline actions like knocking on doors and physically bringing people to the polls so they can vote for your candidate.

Online tools should be implemented because they can help you do that, by creating relationships between a candidate and a voter or allowing the campaign to identify potential sources for volunteer hours, money, and of course votes.

The Obama campaign smartly did this, as the research for my presentation reminded me.  All online properties fed a database, and  communication through email, on Facebook, or through text messaging was always designed to spur supporters to vote, give money, and recruit their friends to do the same. You can communicate online, but votes are counted in real life – so online excitement is only good if it translates to offline action.

Speaking of communication, another lesson that was illustrated nicely by my Norway trip was the unimportance of words in political speeches.  I sat in on several party leaders’ addresses to the group of activists, and found it remarkably easy to follow each speech despite not speaking a word in Norwegian.  I’ve always heard that communication is 55% visual, 38% vocal (the tone and inflection of your voice), and just 7% verbal (the words you use).  The crowd reactions certainly help too, but I’ve never believed these percentages more strongly than I do now.

As further evidence, check out this activist-created (and wholly unofficial) video shown to me by my colleagues across the water.  Even if the original issue isn’t quite clear(a controversy over a policewoman in training questioning whether she could wear a burqa with her uniform) the producer’s take on the political response is pretty clear: