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GOP Campaigns Online

Since I was called out specifically by name (along with my good friends Patrick and Mindy) in a recent post by William Beutler, I felt compelled to reply, so I left a comment on his blog.

Days go by and I was having lunch with Mindy today. We got to talking about the nature of Republican campaigns, and the people in them. She touched on a valid point that brought Beutler’s post back to my mind. Her point was the same point she made in a TechPresident post on candidate use of e-mail. I’ll get to her point in a moment.

There are two aspects to why Republicans aren’t doing very well online – we do not engage in the same types of activities online, and our campaigns largely do not yet see the value of the Internet.

What Republicans Do Online

First, and most important, is the fact that we simply do not engage in the same type of activities online. At the RNC and on the Bush Campaign, we took a look at the type of sites that were more commonly trafficked by voters from each party. We did polling to look at partisan behavior on the web in an effort to determine why the Democrats were successful at raising money online.

The nature of the polling was aimed at answering a simple question. We had data that indicated Republicans were more likely to spend money online with e-commerce sites. There was a great comfort with buying online, but that had not extended to giving to campaigns. Needless to say, this seemed odd. If people were willing to give their credit card info via a website, why wouldn’t they contribute that way?

We began to look at the patterns of behavior for partisans on both sides. On the GOP side, the sites visited tended toward e-commerce and sites that reflected individual pursuits. On the Dem side, we saw a lot more sites like Blue Mountain Greetings or social sites (blogs, greeting cards, and collective activities).

Those differences drove my pursuit of tools and activities that freed volunteers to participate from home without ever looping through the campaign. There just wasn’t a lot of interest, among Republicans online, in social networking activities via the web. There was a lot of interest in social networking offline through house parties and such. That was illustrated by the fact that we had upwards of 5,000 to 8,000 Parties during our national party days (versus 2-3k for MoveOn and the Dean campaign).

Republicans were simply not as interested in virtual networking – they do most of it in the real world. (Understand, like any polling, this was a snapshot in time. These findings may not hold true today, but I believe they do).

The Role Of The Campaign

The obvious question all this begs is this: would Republicans be more likely to engage if they were given the option?

As I said, on the campaign, and at the RNC, the tools I was involved with building were aimed at a specific demographic – one that seemed to fit the typical Republican online – those who wanted to engage in the campaign, wanted to be involved, but didn’t want to participate in the process. I wrote about this in a post on PDF almost two years ago, but skipped the polling discussion because it was still fresh enough to be sensitive.

Some of the tools we developed were intended to be more open. There were concerns raised that the insight gleaned from our polling would presage an inevitable failure since our people, according to the data, were simply not likely to use them. They were, however, meant to be more engaging, and more inviting. They didn’t end up that way and the end result was bureaucracy heavy tools.

So we have a bizarre catch-22 that Beutler recognizes in his post. Do you build tools for the audience you have or the audience you want?

Mindy’s post indicates that the answer, in practice at least, is the former. Republicans are still pursuing a strategy of closed, top-down systems. The people in campaigns still see campaigns as top-down and that’s largely due to their perception that our people are not engaged. GOP campaign professionals (and I’m excluding Internet strategists) ignore the fact that people may be disengaged because the few opportunities available for participation in a top-down paradigm are not engaging.

The Internet is still, unlike in many Democrat campaigns, being treated as an extension of the communications/messaging apparatus. It is a very expensive glossy brochure. Republicans have not learned the value of including the eCampaign in the candidate’s inner circle.

If positioned properly, the eCampaign should have an online complement for every offline activity. Nothing should happen on the ground in Iowa or New Hampshire that doesn’t resonate through every voter following the campaign in Montana or Idaho. Most campaigns, despite their use of YouTube, still see the Internet as a novelty.

Looking back to Beutler’s post, his claim is the 2004 campaign didn’t include a competitve primary, so the people doing online campaigns did not have their skills honed. Frankly, it’s kind of a BS argument. There were enough competitve, Internet influenced elections at the congressional, state and local level in both 2004 and 2006 that even if the Presidential election hadn’t produced anything, there should be a decent farm team in place to step up now.

As for the presidential election, I heard the same criticism of the GOP leading up to 2004. I had calls from consultants telling me that Bush was going to lose solely because of what we were doing online. After the election, after making half a million calls through our online phone bank (the bulk of which were in Ohio and Florida) and after delivering GOTV messages, with maps and driving directions to poll locations, to millions of voters (which contributed to significant improvements in voter turnout), I heard a different story.

I heard we did everything right because we focused on the one thing that mattered. We didn’t focus on socializing. We didn’t focus on some feel-good notion of “fighting against the tendency to bowl alone”. We didn’t focus on using every fad technology just so people would think we were cutting edge. We focused on the role technology could play in attracting supporters, giving them the tools to communicate (on their terms) with their friends and neighbors, and getting them to turn out and vote on election day.

In short, we focused on actually winning the election.

The campaign’s shortcoming, if there is one, was the fact that in the two years since, nobody has learned from that lesson and built on what was won.

The RNC, rather than expanding on that, building new tools, spending time marketing them and building awareness of what was available, instead retreated into a world run by the NY Times and Washington Post. Everything they did online (read: web video commercials) was done for a media hit, not to attract visitors or supporters.

The campaigns today are similarly top-down. McCainSpace is a perfect example of that. It has been 14 days since I created my page, and it still has not been approved. I have received no rejection, no e-mail indicating there is a problem, and no request to change the content. There is simply stony silence.

The trouble is not the Internet strategists, it is a party that doesn’t believe its people will step up and participate if they are invited to do so. If you’re cynical, you could make an argument that it is a party that doesn’t trust its people enough to let them participate.

Written by Michael Turk