Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Barone on Campaigns in the "Networking Era"

I read Michael Barone's Feb. 25 National Journal cover story called "American Politics In The Networking Era" over the weekend and I've just finished thinking it through. The piece, which is an excerpt from the forthcoming Almanac of American Politics 2006, seems to have two purposes. First, it discusses campaigning in the "networking era," arguing that the Bush `04 campaign was tailor-made for the demands of this age. Second, he strongly suggests that 2004 is a "reshaping" (he never uses the more common term "realigning") election along the lines of 1896 and 1936.

Barone is a smart guy (he was editor of the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Law Journal) and a very good political analyst, but his assessment of the "networking era" and the Bush campaign's place in it is seriously flawed. He claims that the 2004 campaign "produced a different kind of politics, a politics that reflects the character of the post-industrial, networking age we live in." Rather than the old command-and-control structures appropriate for the Industrial Age, a networked campaign is decentralized and can draw upon thousands of contact points through which it communicates. In the Information Age, it's the networked campaign that will have an advantage.

Barone believes that the Bush campaign "created an organization unlike any seen before, a networking organization that far surpassed what the Democrats were doing." As evidence of this organization, Barone notes that the Bush campaign collected 6 million e-mail addresses and had 1.4 million active volunteers. More than the numbers, Barone argues it was how the Bush campaign used its volunteers that made it unique. As he says, the Bush organization

used connections - networks - to recruit volunteers and identify voters. The campaign built on existing connections - religious, occupational, voluntary - to establish contacts. If a Bush volunteer was a Hispanic accountant active in the Boy Scouts, the campaign would reach out through him to other Hispanics, accountants and their clients, and Boy Scout volunteers.
So, what were Democrats doing? According to Barone, they relied on unions and 527s, groups that, in turn, "relied on paid workers supervised by command-and-control organizations." That approach is "traditional, industrial-era politics."

To be blunt, I'm not sure what campaign Barone was watching. First of all, MoveOn has 2.9 million e-mail addresses of its own, while Kerry and the DNC maintain lists of almost 3 million and 4 million, respectively. And, with respect to volunteers, the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party signed them up in unprecedented numbers. Furthermore, volunteers organized by progressive 527s numbered in the hundreds of thousands and America Coming Together created the largest get-out-the-vote effort in history. When unions are included, my bet is that the raw number of volunteers was roughly equal.

More puzzling is Barone's contention that 527s are "traditional, industrial-era" organizations. MoveOn.org might be a lot of things, but it isn't traditional. It began life in 1998 as an e-mail to 100 friends and rapidly became a grassroots (or "net-roots") movement. Since then, it has used the Internet in innovative ways to organize and mobilize. (A few weeks after the election, MoveOn "hosted" 1,500 parties around the country to encourage 18,000 attendees to help set the future direction of the organization.) And, as a Wired News story explained last summer, it has "no office and no formal organization other than a website and a handful of staff members spread around the country." You can't get much more decentralized than that.

In fact, it's the Democratic effort that fits Barone's networking model far better than the Republican model. In fact, the approach Barone describes - voters being contacted by someone like them in some important way - was essentially invented by the unions. Labor may be old school, but their tactics helped Democrats beat the Republicans at the turnout game for decades before Republicans mimicked them with their "72 Hour Task Force" in 2002.

Furthermore, progressive outfits coordinated their efforts under the umbrella group America Votes, which consisted of over 30 liberal organizations. But coordination is not command-and-control. Groups still had the flexibility to create their own efforts. For example, when Emily's List needed people in Florida, they e-mailed members from around the nation asking for volunteers. According to a staffer at the group, "Within 36 hours, we had filled four planes with 650 people, and we had such a large waiting list we had to shut it down" (as quoted in a Washington Post story on October 24, 2004). Admittedly, Emily's List paid for the plane tickets, but this was one group contacting its own members. Sounds like networking to me.

The Republican effort, on the other hand, was completely controlled by the Bush campaign and the party. As Barone says in his essay, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman established goals for voter contact and, "Every week, the leaders of the local, state, and national organizations got reports on whether those metrics had been achieved." In addition, "Unproductive volunteers were replaced or persuaded to do more." Leaving aside the question of whether these reports might have violated the prohibition against campaigns coordinating efforts with outside groups, this reads like a classic command-and-control operation. And reporters covering the campaigns' get-out-the-vote shops refer to the Republicans over and over again as "centralized."

In fact, there was no command-and-control structure in the Democratic operation. This, as it turns out, may have been its problem. Remember that perhaps the most decentralized campaign in history was Howard Dean's - which campaign manager Joe Trippi has referred to as an "open source campaign" to signify its emphasis on empowering the grassroots. But Dean's campaign crumbled, at least in part, because there was a lack of logistical direction at the top.

Barone's basic conclusion - that decentralized campaigns are more effective than centralized ones - is simply incorrect, regardless of the era. If you need evidence, you need look no further than the Bush campaign of 2004.

Ironically, Barone's second point - that Republicans might be on the verge of partisan domination for years to come - may very well be right because his first point is wrong. In other words, the Republican organization in 2004 may have "reshaped" the electorate to the GOP's advantage. But that's only possible because the Bush campaign (and, by extension, the Republican Party) ran a tight ship, not a decentralized one. For instance, the GOP's e-mail list is basically the Bush-Cheney `04 list, because the campaign built the list with a post-election hand-over to the RNC in mind. The Kerry campaign, however, promised list members that the e-mails wouldn't be shared with anyone. Thus, the Kerry list and the DNC list remain separate. And all the decentralized efforts of more than 30 527s exacerbate the problem.


At 2:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

stefan-I am not sure i agree that the Democratic email effort was comparable. Both as an individual and at work, I got far more emails, with the same ideas and themes, and more just personal ones, from Rs than from Ds. The Rs flooded every political reporter in the staet with comments, much more than the Ds.-Pete DeC.


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