February 27, 2005


American Politics In The Networking Era (Michael Barone, Feb. 25, 2005, National Journal)

In mid-2003, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean surged ahead of other Democrats in fundraising and in the polls, much attention was given to campaign manager Joe Trippi's use of the Internet. He used it to bring volunteers and money into the campaign, and to allow Dean supporters to add their own words, literally, in the campaign blog. Many political supporters were impressed, and rightly so, that the Dean campaign amassed a list of 600,000 e-mail addresses. But few reporters at the time took note of the number of e-mail addresses the Bush campaign had collected: 6 million.

Over two years, the Bush campaign built an organization of 1.4 million active volunteers. This was unprecedented. By way of comparison, the Democratic National Committee has said it enlisted 233,000 volunteers during the 2004 campaign. The Bush volunteers worked not just in heavily Republican neighborhoods -- only 15 percent of Republican voters, Mehlman calculated, live in precincts that vote 65 percent or more Republican. Instead, they went everywhere, especially to rural counties, many of them slow-growing places where most politicians figure there are no more votes to be won, and to the fast-growing exurban areas at the edges of metropolitan areas, where most of the young families moving in tend to be Republican. Just as Sam Walton figured he could make huge profits selling things to people in low-income rural areas and in low-fashion exurbs, so Mehlman calculated that he could wring votes out of areas that most political strategists and political reporters ignored.

To make sure that those volunteers were achieving their goals, Mehlman established metrics -- numerical goals, measured by third parties. Every week, the leaders of the local, state, and national organizations got reports on whether those metrics had been achieved. Productive volunteers were given positive reinforcement, sometimes a call from Mehlman himself. Unproductive volunteers were replaced or persuaded to do more. Mehlman's management was very much like former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's management of the New York City Police Department: Precinct commanders were given goals -- low crime numbers -- which were independently validated. Those who produced were promoted; those who failed lost their jobs. As a result, crime in New York was cut by more than 50 percent -- more than even Giuliani thought was possible.

This is not command-and-control management, but management by networking, by holding people accountable and letting them learn from each other how to do better. And in post-industrial America, it got better results than command-and-control management. In crucial states with the largest volunteer organizations, the numbers speak as loud as Giuliani's -- turnout rose 28 percent from 2000 in fast-growing Florida and 20 percent in slow-growing Ohio.

The Bush campaign 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. Of course, the campaign put much effort into contacting people in religious groups -- particularly evangelical Christians, but also Catholics and Orthodox Jews. And the Bush campaign reached out to people with shared affinities who tend to be Republicans. The campaign consulting firms National Media and TargetPoint identified Republican-leaning groups -- Coors beer and bourbon drinkers, college football TV viewers, Fox News viewers, people with caller ID -- and devised ways to connect with them.

As Thomas Edsall and James Grimaldi wrote in The Washington Post after the election, "Surveys of people on these consumer data lists were then used to determine 'anger points' (late-term abortion, trial lawyer fees, estate taxes) that coincided with the Bush agenda for as many as 32 categories of voters, each identifiable by income, magazine subscriptions, favorite television shows, and other 'flags.' Merging this data, in turn, enabled those running direct-mail, precinct-walking, and phone-bank programs to target each voter with a tailored message."

Presidential campaigns from 1968 up through 2000 spent most of their time, money, and psychic energy on devising television ads to appeal to undecided and weakly committed voters. Bush-Cheney '04 spent unprecedented amounts of time, money, and psychic energy on networking -- making connections with voters -- through advertising, to be sure, but also through personal contact. The Democrats' turnout drive depended on paid workers persuading strangers to get out and vote. The Republicans' turnout drive depended on volunteers persuading people with whom they had something in common to get out and vote. In industrial America, the Democrats' way may have been more effective. In Information Age America, the Bush campaign's strategy was more effective.

In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard professor of public policy Robert Putnam argued that America is suffering from a decline in social-connectedness -- in people voluntarily working and playing together, being active in those voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville identified as one of the defining characteristics of democracy in America in the 1830s. The Bush campaign, by assembling a core of 1.4 million volunteers, increased social-connectedness in America in an important way.

Anyone who has volunteered and worked actively for a political campaign knows that it is a way to make new friends, to establish ties with people with whom you will work together again, on political campaigns but also on community projects and in voluntary associations of all kinds. Volunteer campaign work has reverberations over the years. Rove and Mehlman believed that it was possible to build such a large volunteer organization, but only for an incumbent president whom people had come to know well and admire, or even love. The Republicans will not have an incumbent to campaign for in 2008. But the 2004 Bush campaign created a quantum of social-connectedness that the Republican nominee in 2008 can build on, a long-lasting asset for the Republican Party.

In the process, the Bush campaign reshaped the electorate. People who have voted once are more likely to vote than are people who have never voted. The Bush campaign added more people to the electorate in 2004 than the Democrats did, and that achievement is likely to reverberate in elections to come. It could even lead to the kind of natural majority for the party that the Democrats built in the 1930s and the Republicans built in the 1890s, majorities that pretty much prevailed for more than 30 years.

The beautiful part of the story is that for the MSM it was just obvious that the stuffy old GOP couldn't revolutionize politics using the Internet and they certainly couldn't hope to win a turnout war. So they mostly ignored all the signs of what was happening around them. Meanwhile, because Joe Trippi and Howard Dean fit their preconceived notions of what revolutionaries should be like, they badly overestimated the likely impact of their Internet efforts, which were more harmful than helpful.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2005 9:57 AM

It seems appropriate to give OJ props for recognizing this revolution when everyone else was looking the wrong way.

Posted by: Brandon at February 27, 2005 10:40 AM

Agree 100%. OJ was on this early and often.

It seems like the Dems still haven't figured this out though.

Posted by: JAB at February 27, 2005 12:29 PM

The blinkered quality of the Democratic Left is amazing. Even on the Internet they manage to ignore the fact that there is a vast diversity of voices that disagrees with them. It's like the articles in the Times expressing complete amazement that the Republicans went to art museums and French restaurants during the GOP Convention.

Posted by: Bart at February 27, 2005 12:52 PM

--turnout rose 28 percent from 2000 in fast-growing Florida---

If I were Floridian, I wouldn't have left until I voted, no matter what the talking heads said.

I would have also been a broken glass pubbie.

Posted by: Sandy P at February 27, 2005 12:53 PM