03 July 2008

On decentralized political campaigns

Going through my blog feed stack today there was an interesting contrast on political campaign organization revolving around decentralization.

On the Republican side there is significant discussion about the shakeup in the McCain campaign who replaced their campaign manager Rick Davis with Steve Schmidt. Schmidt developed a decentralized strategy revolving around strong regional campaigns rather than a strong centralized campaign. To put it bluntly the strategy has failed. The McCain campaign lacks message consistency and focus, and has not been raising as much money as the Obama campaign (discounting the RNC funds). Additionally there are significant fractures in the campaign.

You can get the full background on Davis’s grand plans in Jason Zengerle’s wonderful “McCain-land” piece. The nickel version is that McCain-land has had at least two major factions – one loyal to Rick Davis, and one loyal to fellow long-time McCain devotee John Weaver (who was campaign manager before the shakeup in 2007). One point of contention is that Davis wanted to institute a decentralized campaign composed of various regional chairs. (In other words, the polar opposite of Bush-Cheney’s highly-unsuccessful and amateur 2004 operation, which was rigidly top-down. Yes, that’s sarcastic.) Long story short – Davis got the nod last year after Weaver departed and then proceeded to implement his decentralization plans.

The flip side of the coin is exposed by the Rolling Stone piece that highlights the internal workings of the core of the Obama campaign (h/t Hilzoy). The piece profiles the personalities of the top operatives you never hear about in the Obama campaign that make it run day in and day out. It is this core group that allows the campaign to run a vast, decentralized grass roots campaign. They are the source of information upon which the grass roots can feed and energize. Most notably however they are unified, tight liped and mostly anonymous. As Rolling Stone puts it:

It's also remarkably disciplined: Obama's top advisers outmaneuvered Hillary Clinton's organization with no leaks, no nasty infighting and virtually no public credit for their efforts. By all rights, Plouffe and the other chief architects of Obama's machine should be household names on par with James Carville and Karl Rove. And yet, with the exception of chief strategist David Axelrod, who has emerged as an affably low-key spokesman for the campaign, Obama's brain trust works in near anonymity from the campaign's headquarters on the 11th floor of a smoked-glass skyscraper two blocks south of the Chicago River.

That obscurity is by design. Members of Obama's inner circle are largely unknown to the public because the second rule of the campaign is: All credit accrues to Obama. The first rule? Don't talk about Team Obama. As senior adviser Valerie Jarrett puts it, "We aim for you to not know about the inner workings of the campaign because there's not much to know other than: It works."

These are the people who do 90% of the work to keep the campaign running but people perceive that the campaign is run by thousands of volunteers. This is not uncommon, Wikipedia and Digg have similar phenomenon highlighted by Slate's Chris Wilson.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show. According to researchers in Palo Alto, 1 percent of Wikipedia users are responsible for about half of the site's edits. The site also deploys bots—supervised by a special caste of devoted users—that help standardize format, prevent vandalism, and root out folks who flood the site with obscenities. This is not the wisdom of the crowd. This is the wisdom of the chaperones.

So why did Obama succeed at decentralizing his campaign and creating the first 50 state general election strategy seen in recent history, while the McCain campaign is struggling to find a message that doesn't cause people to yawn?

Both campaigns tried to do the same thing, create grassroots movement in order capture the individual energy of your supporters without having to spend money on it. Being told how wonderful a canidate is by the people you know and love is far more convincing then all of the campaign advertising in the world as demonstrated by the Obama campaign's attempts to defeat the viral smear campaign about him that was profiled by the Washington Post on Monday.

I think the biggest reason that the Obama campaign was able to do this and Republicans have been largely troubled by it is that that Obama started with a message built a group to shape the message then decentralized. The Republicans decentralized then tried to develop different messages to meet the needs of each region. When they did so they failed to provide the kindling that lights the fire of a movement.

Additionally the Obama message is broad enough to tap into many different desires in people and also provides them latitude to create their own sub messages. "Hope" is a huge message, it is an ideological decedent of Regan's "Morning in America" but still accommodates this:

In contrast it is much harder to get people to excited about messages like these.

  • Lower corperate taxes
  • Lets stay in Iraq forever
  • The terrorists want to kill us all
  • I've pissed off just about every Democrat and Republican in the past eight years and this is a sign of my bi-partisanship
Which are in fact not messages they are policy proposals. Policy proposals are important and in a ideal world you would win political campaigns on the merits of your policy. But it is not an ideal world people are more likely to vote for you as much because they trust you to do the right thing in the situation that you can't plan for.

The average person does not have the time to dig in to the statistics and economics that go into determining the optimal marginal tax rate. Wonk is defined in Wikitonary as "An overly studious or hard-working person; A persnickety person, overly focuses on details; A nerd or an expert" most people make fun of that guy, they are not him.

Obama still has policy proposals on health care and tax policy. He also has a wonkish legislative history including creating a search enabled database for earmarks and government contracts, securing loose nukes in former Soviet Republics, tape recording interrogations in capital crimes (Illinois), but you don't see him leading with these proposals. Instead you hook on the message "Change". Once you have people convinced that you both want to change, talking about how to change is much easier.

In conclusion decentralization is not something that happens easily or you can do on the cheap. It requires three things:
  1. A broad message to shape the movement and inspire people to volunteer to support it
  2. A dedicated group of people to shape and direct the movement at the macro level
  3. The willingness to let people go and do their own thing
The Obama campaign seems to have done all three and it has paid off. The McCain campaign tried the third alone, and it didn't happen. Now in July before a November election they must try to recreate their organization. Sometimes life sucks.

1 comment:

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