Thursday, October 15, 2009

Political Campaign Opportunities in the Digital Age


Disruptive Innovation
The term "disruptive technology" was coined by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1995 article "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave" and 1997 book "The Innovator's Dilemma."

In his follow-on book, "The Innovator's Solution," Christensen, an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Business School Professor and much sought after business speaker, revised the term "disruptive technology" to "disruptive innovation."

Christensen recognized that few technologies are intrinsically disruptive or sustaining in character. Rather, it is the innovative strategy or business model that the technology enables that creates a disruptive impact.
Christensen: “The disruptive innovation theory points to situations in which new organizations can use relatively simple, convenient, low-cost innovations to create growth and triumph over powerful incumbents. The theory holds that existing incumbents have a high probability of beating entrant attackers when the contest is about sustaining innovations. But established incumbents almost always lose to attackers armed with disruptive innovations. . ."
In effect, "Disruptive Innovation" can change the rules of the game! Without the internet, Barack Obama would still be the junior senator from Illinois.

Under the old media rules of the political game, a young man with a funny name and a couple of years in the Senate might run honorably, but would almost certainly lose, crushed by the ability of an experienced candidate like Hillary Clinton to raise money from big donors and lock up endorsements from elected officials and party activists.

But, Barack Obama declared his candidacy in 2007, not in 1991, and his two-year campaign for the White House applied the principals of disruptive innovation in his use of new media technologies to overcome inherent advantages of well established incumbent candidates, like Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

Obama's campaign staff out performed opponents on the ground by adopting new and innovative web-based and cellular-based Internet media strategies to find new supporters, put supporters to work, organize supporter actions, turn out voters on election day and (of course) to raise unprecedented amounts of money — all contributing to a crucial edge in the primary and general elections.

By election day 2008: [Bloomberg]
  • Obama's YouTube campaign videos had been watched 150 million times,
  • Obama and McCain supporter-made videos had been view 1.5 billion times,
  • His social-networking site had recruited 8 million volunteers,
  • 200,000 events had been posted on MyBO,
  • He had more than 2 million supporters on Facebook and more on other social hubs,
  • He collected over 13 million email addresses,
  • He had 4 million online donors,
  • He raised more than $600 million (much of it from online donations)
  • 3 million people voluntarily gave the Obama campaign their cellphone numbers and
  • Obama received 66% of the vote among the 18-29 age voters compared to McCain's 32% of the vote. This young demographic also voted 63-34 for House Democrats nationwide.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign successfully unleashed the potential of Internet tools. He created a “hybrid campaign” by using technology to supplement a strong traditional campaign strategy — proving his capabilities as a leader and a force for change in politics. Though Obama was the first to win with this new approach, many of the techniques used by his Internet team were inspired by the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. Dean catapulted himself from the position of an obscure, dark-horse candidate with few resources into a real contender for the Democratic nomination by harnessing the power of online tools. In so doing, he proved that the Internet can give even a huge underdog a chance to be president.

Joe Trippi (video left) wrote in his book about the campaign, that when he arrived in Vermont (where Dean was Governor), he found a campaign with six staff members that had raised only $315,000 and had collected 9,000 “Friends of Howard” (names on scraps of paper “filed” in shoe boxes). Trippi felt they were two years behind where they ought to be, and the media treated Dean like a charismatic afterthought. No one outside of the 600,000 people in his tiny state knew anything about him. Dean recognized his dire situation and wanted to use decentralization as a campaign strategy. To accomplish this strategy, Trippi turned to the Internet.

The idea to use Meetup.com came from a blog post that Trippi read about Dean supporters independently organizing on this local group network. Without encouragement from the campaign, 432 people across the nation had indicated their desire to meet up with other Dean supporters. When Trippi put a link to Meetup on the campaign website, their numbers began to grow rapidly until they eventually overwhelmed Meetup and had to build similar software (called GetLocal tools) that allowed supporters to find the closest Dean meetings and helped volunteer organizers find others to do cleanups, canvassing and house parties. By the end of the campaign, they had 600,000 supporters who they could mobilize, many of whom had independently organized activities without encouragement from the campaign. The “opt-in” model of Meetup and GetLocal meant that only people who were interested signed up, preventing the need for more costly traditional methods of volunteer recruitment.

The other half of the decentralization strategy was the first presidential campaign blog ever made. It was started as HOWARD DEAN 2004 CALL TO ACTION WEBLOG (which you can still see) and rebuilt as the Blog for America (which has since become Democracy for America, a PAC). With its comments section open to the public and its conversational writing style, the blog attracted thousands of readers and commenters for each post. Supporters felt a sense of belonging to a community where their ideas were heard — quite different from the traditional campaign website, which pushed polished press releases out to their supporters and the public in a controlled, one-way conversation. Dean supporters on the blog even helped build part of GetLocal tools called DeanLink, and others organized the Dean Corps, which did local community service projects.

Through Meetup, GetLocal and the Blog for America, the Dean campaign used the cost efficiencies and collaborative potential of the Internet to create a campaign whose supporters called their leader “People-powered Howard.” But to reach the general electorate through important traditional media such as TV ads, the campaign needed money. Here again, their online efforts paid off. Traditional fundraising was heavily supplemented with online fundraising, and the Dean campaign beat out the other leading Democratic candidates by such a large margin that he turned down public financing of his primary run (after putting the issue up for a vote on his blog). They repeatedly made the risky move of setting fundraising goals with hard deadlines (if they just miss a goal, it looks bad even if the goal was very ambitious). In 2003, after surpassing their 2nd quarter goal of $4.5 million before the end of the quarter, they upped the number to $6.5 million in the last week and ended up raising $7.2 million. Each quarter they broke the record they had set in the last, making Dean a candidate with an innovative campaign strategy, a strong and active base of supporters and a lot of money.

So why did Dean lose? Many blamed his unconventional campaign strategy, but — as Trippi points out in his book — no one was saying that traditional strategies didn’t work despite all the other candidates that lost the nomination using conventional methods. What happened was a perfect storm of setbacks that the campaign could not recover from. As Dean pulled ahead in the Iowa polls in the months leading up to the Caucuses the other candidates began focusing their energy against him. They seeded negative stories that seriously damaged his standing in the polls. As a last ditch effort to recover, Dean aired a negative ad that attacked Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards over the Iraq War (with Gephardt taking the most heat). Gephardt responded with an attack ad against Dean only, which tanked both his and Dean’s chances in Iowa while Kerry and Edwards stayed above the fray. But what really sank Dean was the overhyped coverage of the “I Have A Scream” (in which his voice cracked while passionately rallying his supporters). The clip got played over and over after his loss in Iowa and the news media used it to claim that Dean didn’t have the temperament of a president. Despite many news outlets confessing that they may have gone too far by airing the “scream” repeatedly and analyzing it out of context (some journalists even pushed back against it), the damage had been done. Dean lost New Hampshire and soon pulled out of the race.

Howard Dean proved that an unknown candidate with no money and few staff or supporters could get a late start on his campaign and still have a real chance at the presidency. By using the Internet to fundraise, organize, and communicate with his supporters, Dean pioneered a model that Barack Obama’s campaign would employ in the 2008 presidential race.

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run started in a much better position than Dean’s did in 2004. He had an experienced team to ensure a strong traditional campaign strategy, and he had recognition — from his sudden debut on the national landscape with his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, his election to the U.S. Senate in 2006, and the book he had written about his identity. Instead of using the Internet to bootstrap a campaign, Obama used it to go beyond what a traditional campaign could accomplish. Obama’s biggest wins from his “hybrid” campaign style were volunteer organizing, fundraising, and creating a unbeatable brand.

Obama’s online presence looked sleek like a hot new Silicon Valley tech start-up, and it functioned better than Dean’s. Yet it performed many of the same basic tasks. MyBarackObama.com was built by Chris Hughes (a co-founder of Facebook, pictured above), and it housed all of his Internet Tools. Intuitive and fun to use, it allowed supporters to create personal profiles, form groups, plan local events, raise funds and connect directly with other supporters and voters locally and around the country. It also had an application that trained volunteers in telephone and in-person canvassing, then provided phone numbers and addresses of those people that might be most receptive to contact from a particular volunteer. This application was even adapted into an iPhone app (pictured below). This extreme personalization and targeting of key constituencies was possible because of information volunteered by supporters in their profiles and data mining on potential voters. By creating these tools, Obama empowered his supporters to organize even without help from his campaign. When staff came in to set up an official operation, much of the infrastructure and volunteer base were already in place. This reduced the cost of canvassing and volunteer management and allowed Obama’s supporters to reach many more people.

Another important aspect of Obama’s online presence was fundraising. Though Obama would have likely raised an impressive sum of money without the Internet, with it he raised a record shattering $745 million. More than Bush and Kerry raised in 2004 combined. Obama broke $500 million with online fundraising alone (with 3 million donors who made 6.5 million donations). McCain by contrast raised $238 million and accepted $84 million in public financing. This huge gap in fundraising meant that Obama outspent McCain on every front. According to Alan I. Abramowitz (writing in The Year of Obama), Obama had a 2-to-1 advantage in local TV spot advertising, 336 field offices in battleground states to McCain’s 101 offices. Studies show that in-person canvassing has the most effect on voter turnout, so Obama’s combination of over three times as many field offices as well as his superior online canvassing tools made a huge impact on the election.

Obama did an incredible job of creating a powerful brand. Through a combination of his oratory style, age and identity, and his flawless execution of a “hybrid” campaign, Obama proved to people that he could lead despite his lack of experience (a point that Clinton and McCain both tried to use against him). Whether you were a Democrat or a Republican, the power of his brand during the campaign was undeniable. He was cool and passionate, the first black presidential candidate with a good shot, and he conducted his campaign like a cutting edge business. Barack Obama ran, perhaps, the most brilliant campaign in recent history.

Despite all of the hype around Obama’s use of the Internet in his campaign, we have to remember the context in which he ran. President George W. Bush had one of the lowest approval ratings of all time, and the economic crisis could not have come at a more opportune time for the Democrats. Obama may have run a much better campaign, but there is no way to separate out the effects of the political climate and campaign strategy. This questions will be interesting to keep in mind as we approach the 2012 election cycle. We will have to see if the Republicans and other Democrats learn from Obama’s campaign, and see how Obama deals with the issues that many Americans now look to him to solve.

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