Can frontrunner candidates win on the Internet?

Posted December 1, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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Our final book of the semester was Joe Trippi‘s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything. Currently an election analyst and commentator at CBS, Trippi is a “political wizard” who has worked for several presidential campaigns. The high point of his career was the Internet-based presidential campaign of then-Governor of Vermont Howard Dean.

The methods and tools Trippi used during the Dean campaign can be credited with laying the foundations for Barack Obama‘s wildly successful candidacy. Marc Ambinder, political blogger at The Atlantic, says this on the back cover of Trippi’s book: “He is responsible, as much as any single person, for willing to life the innovations in thought and practice that gave rise to the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party‘s grassroots reformation.” The brand of campaigning that Trippi invented with Dean was improved on and mastered by Obama’s staff.

A common theme with the handful of successful Internet campaigns thus far has been the lack of a frontrunner candidate. Those running for office who’ve reaped the benefits of taking the fight to the Web have been insurgent candidates, like Obama, Virginia Senator Jim Webb, former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, Montana senator Jon Tester, etc. Even candidates who ended up losing (Dean, Ron Paul and Ned Lamont to name a few), but had tremendous online success, were insurgents.

It begs the question of whether or not a frontrunner candidate can successfully use the Internet, or if the Web only helps insurgents. I think that more and more, we’ll see frontrunner candidates begin to harness and perfect online campaigning, as soon as the 2010 elections. Anyone in office who turns a blind eye to the success Obama had is committing political suicide. Campaigning and politics is changing, and as Trippi says, the politicians need to adapt and they need to get it.

There are a couple of more reasons I think frontrunners will eventually enjoy success via the Web. The obvious one is that Obama will be up for re-election in 2012. Unless the next four years are even worse than the Bush administration, he will be a clear frontrunner. Do you really think he won’t have success on the Internet because he’s a frontrunner? My second bit of reasoning comes from Hillary Clinton‘s failed presidential campaign.

Despite the recommendations of Trippi to run a Web-based bottom-up campaign, the Clinton team stubbornly refused and ran a traditional top-down campaign. In Feb. 2008, when the campaign was running out of money, they finally decided to take it online. So what happened? By the end of the month, Clinton had raised $35 million, almost all of it from Internet donations. It was too little too late though as Obama’s campaign was too strong a force to rally against. If Clinton had taken the bottom-up approach and hit the Web from the very beginning, when she was the clear favorite, we may have been talking about her making history and not Obama.

How the Republicans plan to rebound

Posted November 29, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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The 2008 elections were a humbling blow for the Republican Party. Their presidential candidate failed to resonate with the public and differentiate himself enough from the Bush White House. They lost Senate and House seats left and right. On top of that, numerous red states turned blue, including the likes of Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia. Clearly the GOP faces a long climb if it wants to be competitive in the 2012 elections and rebuild.

Efforts to recover started almost immediately after the elections. A new site, RebuildTheParty.com, was launched less than 44 hours after the results came in. As of this posting, the site has 6,101 members, who contribute their ideas and pledge to help make the party meaningful again. Founded by young Republican activists Patrick Ruffini and Mindy Finn, the site has a 10-point mission statement outlining the changes they’d like to see from Republicans and the next chairman of the Republican National Committee. Of the four publicly-declared candidates to chair the RNC, two have signed off on the plan.

Ruffini and Finn warn that Republicans have a lot of catching up to do because Democrats‘ advantages include their higher use of the Internet, a 2-to-1 advantage among young voters (where Bush and Gore tied among this group in 2000, Obama beat McCain 66% to 32%), and a much better grassroots model. The pair argue that the GOP needs transformation and “can’t keep fighting a 21st century war with 20th century weapons.”

The Washington Post‘s Jose Antonio Vargas makes a great point when he says “the right owns talk radio; the left owns the Internet.” This doesn’t mean the right isn’t on the Web, it certainly is, but what it illustrates is that the level of organization by the right pales significant in comparison to the left. Liberal bloggers have a lot of differences, but Vargas says they still managed to rally together around opposition to Bush and the Iraq War. Vargas says bloggers on the right “haven’t united over a common enemy. They’ve been too busy arguing among themselves.”

This is essentially why Rebuild the Party has identified the Internet, and winning the tech war with Democrats, as the GOP’s top priority over the next four years. Rebuild the Party’s mission statement says that the best and most efficient way to compete against what is likely to be a $1 billion Obama re-election campaign is through online organizing. Rebuild the Party sets goals of recruiting 5 million new Republican online activists while holding local campaigns and parties accountable during elections. Hoping to end a sense of dependency on the RNC, RTP wants to hold individual campaigns “accountable for the number of emails they collect and the money they raise online.”

The RTP’s mission statement concludes by saying that the RNC should open its “technology ecosystem” to outside contractors. They would like to see technology vendors with conservative interests compete for the GOP’s business with new applications and breakthroughs that can improve the party. Clearly, they saw the level of success the Democratic Party enjoyed with companies like Catalist.

In addition to RTP, another recently-launched site is RepublicanForAReason.com. Created by the RNC itself, it’s a grassroots efforts that wants Republicans to share their opinions of the party so that the GOP can reconnect with its base. The RNC’s Internet division is headed by Cyrus Krohn, a guest speaker in our class earlier this semester.

Your own political notebook on the web

Posted November 28, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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A little over 10 days ago, OpenCongress.org launched a new feature called “My Political Notebook.” It’s still in the early stages but it seems like it could be a useful resource for political junkies. First though, some background information on OpenCongress.org.

A joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, OpenCongress tries to make our nation’s legislative branch more transparent. The website is free, open-source, non-profit and non-partisan. It has virtually everything you need and want to know about Congress.

TechPresident.com calls My Political Notebook a “political-themed Delicious meets Google Notebook.” The feature allows you to bookmark virtually any web page to your notebook under the category of your choice. It’s a good way to store all of the political content that interests you and you’d like to keep tabs on. Additionally, you can link to any page or content that’s on OpenCongress for your future reference.

A nice feature of My Political Notebook is the easy access to bills currently in discussion. If you bookmark something on the federal bailout and save it under “Economy” for example, you will then be introduced to the latest economic bills before Congress. The notebook can also be published through an RSS stream so that it can be shared with anyone.

It’s still new and fairly basic but expect more advancements and features as more people begin to use it. Once users can comment on each other’s notebooks, the interactiveness of the site will greatly improve and open the door to thoughtful debate. There is some work to do to catch up with the likes of Delicious, but with enough publicity, My Political Notebook might be able to take off.

Some interesting findings…

Posted November 28, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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TechPresident.com recently highlighted a new report from Temple University’s Insititute for Business and Information Technology. Titled Does the Internet Matter? (password is: templeowls), Temple’s Sunil Wattal, David Schuff and Munir Mandviwalla researced how social media may have affected the presidential campaign. Their findings are from monitoring 15 candidates over the 1-year period between Feb. 2007 and Feb. 2008.

The report begins with this assertion: The Internet may dramatically increase the role of citizens, provide superior information leading to better informed citizenry, and in general achieve the utopia of a direct democracy. The researchers add that they believe the Internet could also “foster a new generation of politicians who ignore traditional ‘big money’ tactics in favor of grassroots campaigns.” This was proven as a viable strategy with Obama’s remarkable fundraising success.

Now on to some of the numbers from the report. In the 12-month period studied, Obama (enjoying a 39% share) was first in website visitors and page views (17%) among the eight Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton was the closest competitor at 30% and 13% shares. The Temple researchers think that their dominance mirrors the amount of coverage they received in the mainstream media. On the Republican side, it was a whole different story and very surprising. Ron Paul (30%) led in the number of visitors and Duncan Hunter (who?) led in page views (18%). The researchers guess that site visits indicate interest in a candidate while page views indicated the depth of interest. The page views were fairly equally spread among both Democrats and Republicans, debunking the assumption that the Internet allows voters to learn more about lesser known candidates. The tool is obviously there, but most people aren’t using it, preferring to learn more about their candidate instead.

Among Democrats, Obama was second in blog mentions and first on both YouTube and MySpace. Among Republicans, Ron Paul was most prominent on YouTube and MySpace. An interesting point the researchers make is that neither Obama nor Paul were frontrunners during the period the study was conducted.

Finally, perhaps the most surprising finding was that blog mentions were significantly correlated to an increase in Gallup polling results. The researchers point out that blog mentions caused better numbers in polling than MySpace, YouTube, Web 1.0 media and traditional media. They conclude that the advantage of blogs is that they “credibly socialize and scale campaign movements like no other web 2.0 technology.” The report is well worth reading and at least checking out its graphs and tables.

Netanyahu… Change Israelis can believe in?

Posted November 28, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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Apparently Barack Obama’s campaign was such a success that it’s already being imitated. The Russian and Hebrew campaign websites of Benjamin Netanyahu, a staunch conservative running for prime minister in Israel, are incredibly similar to barackobama.com. The New York Times had this to say: “The colors, fonts, the icons for donating and volunteering, the use of videos, and the social networking Facebook-type options … all reflect, a conscious effort by the Netanyahu campaign to learn from the Obama success.”

In that same piece, one of Netanyahu’s top advisers is quoted with the old “imitation is the greatest form of flattery” line. That’s nice and all, but couldn’t they be a little more original? If Israeli voters are smart enough, they should see right through Netanyahu’s motives. In my opinion, the blatant mimicry just exposes a candidate who doesn’t think his appeal is strong enough to win on his own merit. So what does he do? He copies the most successful, web-savvy, “new” campaign we’ve ever seen.

It’s rather ironic that Netanyahu has modeled his campaign after Obama. If anything, his beliefs and ideologies are much closer to losing Republican candidate John McCain. Still, Netanyahu’s team takes the position that their candidate will bring “change” to Israel. Of course, not change resembling what Obama is trying to accomplish, but change nonetheless. Additionally, much like Obama tried to link McCain to President Bush and distance himself from Washington, Netanyahu has drawn a hard line between the current prime minister and himself. The strategy is working as some recent polls show Netanyahu slightly ahead.

Where Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can,” Netanyahu’s is “Together we can succeed.” It’s a somewhat similar message that Netanyahu hopes will engage Israeli voters. One way the campaign is trying to accomplish this is by using Twitter. Though the micro-blogging service is virtually non-existent in Israel, Netanyahu believes it has value and hopes it catches on.

If Netanyahu goes on to win the election, it may signal a new trend in overseas elections. More and more candidates, if they have the resources, could resort to running a similar campaign. My concern is that these candidates will be capitalizing on voters’ eagerness for a new form of political engagement, instead of truly discussing their platform. Let’s hope it doesn’t open the door for charismatic, but dangerous and rogue, candidates to rise to power.

Campaign lookback

Posted November 28, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much all campaigned out. The presidential campaign ended over three weeks ago now, but people are still talking about it. It was an extremely long cycle and it seems some people just can’t get enough. I’m tired of talking about, but it’s still important to think about some of the significant achievements.

The Obama campaign took the 2004 Howard Dean campaign’s groundbreaking new methods and drastically improved them. The level of organization and participation was nothing ever seen before in a national campaign. Much of the success can be attributed to Obama’s website and the ways his Internet team promoted and protected him. There were numerous methods which contributed to the campaign’s success.

Obama was the first candidate to use a splash page. When a user logged on to barackobama.com, the splash page appeared first. It caught their attention and got into details right away, asking them to register and donate money. In addition to the splash page, users could donate throughout the website. Obama set new standards in fundraising, and the majority of it came from very small donations. Another great thing about the website was the constant stream of new content. Thousands of videos from the campaign trail were uploaded to the site, allowing the public to keep tabs on the candidate. In many ways, the campaign served as its own press corps. The video coverage was great, but the fact that staffers were blogging with updates created a transparency not seen before. One last innovation that Obama got a lot of coverage for was the use of text messaging. He announced his choice of Joe Biden via text message. The method was a nice idea but I just found it hard to believe that nobody had thought of it before.

Of course, not everyone liked Obama, and there was a considerable effort to smear him. The Obama team was unfazed though, and had an answer for the ugly tactics. It established separate sections of the website that were intended to combat the specific smears. If someone googles “Barack Obama” and “Muslim,” one of the first sites that comes up is Fight the Smears, which was set up by Obama’s team to debunk all the lies.

It was not just Obama’s team that tried to sway public opinion. This campaign cycle saw an explosion in voter-generated content. Regular folks, and some celebrities, created their own videos, t-shirts, games, etc., all in an effort to promote Obama’s election. Several items of VGC went viral, reaching a mass audience. All of this was free advertising for Obama and allowed a level of participation by people unaffiliated with the campaign that had never been seen.

Obama’s team took campaigning to a whole new level and no doubt revolutionized the process. It will be very interesting to see what happens in 2012. Will Obama maintain his Web supremacy?

Obama’s White House 2.0

Posted November 26, 2008 by Arin Karimian
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Barack Obama won’t enter the White House until Jan. 20, but he’s already the most tech-savvy President in this country’s history. He is in other words, the first Internet President. Obama’s campaign masterfully used the Web and new technologies to win the election. But, how will he keep that up while in the White House?

Obama has promised that his administration will be very transparent from the beginning. This means we can expect a drastic change to occur at WhiteHouse.gov. The Bush administration was intensely secretive and ran a dull, bare-bones operation of the White House’s official site. Really, the only kind of behind-the-scenes action was of Barney, President Bush’s dog. That’s entertaining and all, but does nothing to appease the American voters. We want to know what our leaders are thinking and what they’re working on to improve our lives. We don’t care what the President’s dog is up to.

I expect Obama and his staff to be very accessible to the public. This was seen throughout the campaign and continued a few weeks ago when Obama delivered the Democratic Party’s weekly radio address for a YouTube audience. Those weekly radio addresses by the President that nobody really listens to? Expect that to change once Obama takes it to YouTube. It also wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect some Obama staffers to maintain up-to-date blogs on the administration’s activities. Sure, some of the higher-ups will be too busy and have confidentiality concerns, but those not in positions that are as vital shouldn’t have any problem with this. One other thing I’d like to see is a monthly 2-hour chat session with President Obama. How great would that be? It would be a tremendous opportunity for him to be accountable to the public, who in turn, would relish the chance to interact with the President.

Obama can take things further by encouraging the public to start online discussions with issues they’d like to see examined. Users could also respond to regular surveys on the job Obama’s doing and what could use improvement. With all of these changes, the public will feel more appreciated and involved than ever before. I really don’t see a way that Obama’s campaign can mess this up. Looking at the opaqueness of the previous administration and understanding the constantly-growing popularity of the Internet and new forms of communication, the Obama administration should revolutionize how a presidency operates.