Could not authenticate you. An Outside Insider’s View

(cross-posted from TechPresident)

A lot has been written about the Thompson campaign in the past two days. I have read a bunch of post-mortems all focused on what went wrong, but I thought I would spend a little time telling you what went right. For people interested in online politics and the way candidates use the web, the Thompson campaign is a great case study in what can go well, and go badly in our world.

On May 22nd, I was sitting at Inova Fairfax hospital as my wife was rehydrated. A vicious stomach flu was circulating through the house and had brought my wife and son down. As we sat there that evening, I received an e-mail on my Blackberry from the brother of a friend of the Thompson’s. A few days earlier, they had seen an article in the Washington Post wherein I chastised my party for not using the Internet effectively.

I had been sweating the fallout from that article for two days. I was not exactly loved by the RNC for my critical assessment of their online operation. That article, which was about 180 degrees removed from the series of conversations I had with the reporter, was not going to help.

The Thompson team, however, agreed with my assessment that campaigns could use the Internet differently and wanted me to come out to “The House” to chat about it. We agreed to meet the next day despite what would become a full-blown case of the flu. The Thompson team, it seems, had circulated that same flu about a week earlier and none of them were afraid of catching it again.

On May 23rd, I met with Team Fred and after a three hour discussion of new and innovative ways you could use the Internet to supplement a traditional campaign, I left with an assignment – build a Presidential website in the height of a media storm, that would withstand a huge rush of traffic the moment it launched, and do it all in 10 days.

The Launch

On June 5, 2007, we launched The site was originally envisioned as a simple splash page that would gather low hanging fruit – early donors and supporters looking to sign up. A requirement that all forms be pre-populated so visitors would not have to fill in information more than once threw in a wrinkle and we ended up building personalization into a splash page – not something most people would do. We also ended up building tools that would allow viral recruitment for both donors and volunteers.

Now these tools were hardly new or innovative, but the combination of designing the data architecture, doing the graphic design work, cutting up the site, coding it all, and allowing time to test for bugs in 10 days (over Memorial Day weekend, no less) was about the craziest thing I have ever tried. The data architecture alone had to support huge traffic, and getting the servers provisioned, hardened and tested would eat into our ability to deploy a test environment. Doing all of this over the holiday made me very popular with the development team.

Speaking of the team, I have to give credit to Dan Hopkins, Blaise Hazelwood, Todd Zeigler, Ken Smith, Brian Lyle and the gang that pulled this together. They did an outstanding job getting the site launched under those conditions and rarely complained (to me at least).

On Hannity and Colmes, Fred announced his website url and the flood came in. We took a lot of heat for the thin site, but we didn’t have time for much else. Had we had a month to design, build and test, we could have done more. Given the time we had, and the limitations of working under the “Testing the Waters” rules, I thought we did fine. We attracted over 100,000 unique visitors, raised over a quarter million dollars, and added nearly 30,000 names to our list in the first 24 hours.

On June 12, we rolled out the Fred File, added Fred’s bio, and added tools to spread the word through traditional media by contacting talk radio and newspapers. I was traveling back from a meeting in Colorado that night on a flight that was seriously delayed. I ended up doing the go-live countdown from a seat just inside the arrival gate at Dulles airport on their wi-fi connection. We made the rollout about 30 minutes ahead of Fred’s appearance on Leno that night.

The blog was a hit almost instantly and led me to believe the path we had chosen was right. Fred’s commentaries were getting a lot of comments and I saw the beginning of an online community I’ve never seen around a GOP candidate’s online operation. What’s more, nobody wrote a single word about what supporters were saying online. Nobody accused us of endorsing the random beliefs espoused by the occasional nut, and nobody on the campaign had to answer a single press call (that I am aware of) about the blog or anything said on it. Version 2.0 – The New McKinley

Described inappropriately as 2.0 by some creative types, the actual site was finished the week of July 9th. We had been asked to shoot for having the live site ready the first week of July (timed to be released with the announcement). The site was delayed by a week. The announcement was delayed by two months.

Originally I saw the campaign’s Internet operation as the modern day equivalent of McKinley in 1896. As Fred took his message to the people, they could, at the same moment, come and visit him sitting on the front porch of this virtual house. FDT could simultaneously campaign in Iowa and around the world, by carrying the coffee shop conversations online – posting about questions he was asked at a rally, or continuing to develop regular, and lengthy posts about the issues we face.

While the pundits will discuss and debate exactly where the campaign went wrong, the one thing I believe they misunderstand is the way the Internet could have, and should have, shaped this campaign. That misunderstanding contributed to the “Fred is lazy” storyline early on.

The campaign still had to do the things necessary to win – talking to, registering, IDing, and mobilizing voters. Nobody questioned that. That the campaign strategy was written off as “relying entirely on the Internet” was simply not accurate.

The idea, from my perspective, was to harness the power of the Net to build a robust community that would become an integral part of the ground game. The Bush-Cheney campaign had begun the process of enabling volunteer action online. It pioneered activism tools that allowed voters to create and run phone bank and canvass operations from their home. It allowed people to participate on their own terms, rather than forcing them to attend a Saturday morning walk.

I saw this campaign as the natural evolution of that effort, but it would go further in the one arena where BC04 fell short. The Bush campaign was innovative in allowing people to participate in the mechanics of the campaign, but it never developed the community that could interact, inspire, and spur each other into action. I felt in 2004, and still feel today, that is the missing pieces required to fully realize the benefit of these applications.

The Thompson web operation would be different. With Jon Henke, Howard Mortman and William Beutler constantly opening new channels through local, state and national blogs, and the campaign site providing a vehicle for those attracted to participate in the campaign, we could reach the tipping point where engaged people are empowered to contribute in ways never attempted by the GOP.

Buy In

When I first met with Linda Rozett, Mark Corallo and Ed McFadden, I was distrustful. I unfairly stereotyped them as traditional communications people. It has been my experience in dealing with campaign Communications staff that they have developed a sort of impenetrable cocoon around themselves. Any thought that runs contrary to the way they did things on their first campaign is somehow filtered out as a bad idea. I would describe it as a mild form of mental illness. It’s a cognitive dissonance of the first order and it seems to afflict nearly all of them.

Mark, Ed and Linda didn’t fit that mold. They understood that we needed to be part of the dialog on blogs and online forums like Townhall, but they also understood the need to drive traffic to our own property and to develop a community. The chatter about Fred online, the traffic to the site, and the money coming in led me to believe the theory was right and we could introduce a paradigm shift.

I knew from my RNC days and the Bush days that buy-in for a radically different approach would be critical. I was pleased to see that everyone in the campaign from Fred and Jeri through Linda, Mark and Ed was onboard. It really did make a difference.

The Little Red Truck

Unfortunately, the staff turnover that began in the late summer had an almost immediate effect on the Internet operation.

As the Communications team focused on traditional media tactics, their attention increasingly turned away from the Internet. The commentaries became less frequent, online initiatives were no longer part of the equation.

In October, we began discussions of an end of quarter fundraising drive featuring a real-time disclosure of our success. The concept was shot down over concerns that it would place too much emphasis on money. As we moved through November, we began to hear rumblings of Fredsgiving Day – a third party money bomb effort scheduled the day before Thanksgiving.

It was unclear whether the campaign would support the effort. There were concerns (voiced by many online) that the timing was off – nobody would pay attention the day before the holiday. In the event the campaign decided to jump in, we went ahead and built the little red truck to track contributions that day. It was never deployed.

It was late in December when the little red truck finally saw the sunlight. Over the next three weeks, that little red pickup helped the campaign raise 1.25 million dollars. Had it been unveiled sooner, who knows what might have happened.

Lessons Learned

I share all of this anecdotally in the hopes of illustrating something for GOP campaigns (and more broadly for campaigns in general). I’m afraid that the withdrawal of Fred Thompson will lead people to conclude that the model was wrong. I really don’t feel it was.

As I said, I think the Thompson Internet operation, in the early days, and in the final days, was really second to none. Political campaign professionals should study the Thompson effort not as a case study in what went badly, but as an example of what was going very well, and could have been extraordinary had it not been for the media’s obsessive demand for ‘the tried and true tactics of the 1980s’.

As an example of the strength of Thompson’s online effort, look at the Thompson campaign blog and you’ll see something remarkable for GOP candidates – comments. And not just a few comments, but hundreds and even thousands of comments.

Rudy’s blog doesn’t allow comments. Romney’s gets a few per post. Ron Paul just recently launched a blog (despite the fact that blog software is largely free). He currently gets between a handful and a few dozen comments.

I don’t think this indicates a lack of supporter enthusiasm as much as it indicates that the campaigns have created a blog with nothing to say on sites that are so scrubbed of interesting content they’re alsmost sterile. Most of the posts are rehashed press releases, rehashed campaign e-mails, or occasionally a video so overscripted it becomes almost completely unwatchable.

Most campaigns think of comments as a way for people to respond to the post. Almost nobody on the GOP side sees this as a way for their supporters to network, to share ideas, or to brainstorm ways to help the campaign.

Most Republicans fear the rogue comment that will be used to tarnish their campaign. What they fail to realize is in a vibrant community that rogue comment is always surrounded by dozens of voices or more shouting them down. If anything, they typically dispel arguments that your base is crazy.

For the rabidly partisan Democrats reading this, please don’t mischaracterize this post as “Republican Internet guru just discovers blogs and comments.” That is not at all the point. The point is something much larger that I have been shouting at my party for several years now – they need to trust and engage the people. Since the people are online, they need to engage people online. There are just as many Democtrats who need to learn this lesson (cough, cough, Hillary, cough, cough).

They need to build online operations so they invite people to the discussion rather than turning them off of it. Get candidates to write, in their own words, frequent posts. Understand that a ground game is critical, but it must be viewed in terms of ROI. A thoughtful, honest post from a candidate may be discussed and passed around by thousands of people online. It takes little time to write if it’s sincere and not obsessive studied and focus grouped.

If your candidate honestly doesn’t have time to write, have staff carry a video camera and a MacBook to post from the road. Forgo the hair, the makeup, and the lighting. You’re on a bus 50 miles from Waterloo. Nobody is going to believe that your makeup is perfect and so is the lighting. Be real. We don’t expect perfection, but we do expect honesty.

My last piece of advice is this… In your interview process, ask your Communications Director to name his five favorite blogs. If they can’t, ask them for a suggestion on how best to target communications to specific demographic segments using banner ads. If they can’t answer either of those questions, don’t hire them. They don’t get what’s going on in the world around them.

Written by Michael Turk