Dot Com Campaigning Crashes

Yesterday I wondered what paradigms would be blown out in this election season. The one I was most interested in was the get out the vote (“GOTV”) program — in particular whether paid organizers with 527 organizations would outperform passionate volunteers loyal to their candidate. It now appears we have the answer. The President’s volunteer program of grassroots activists trounced the 527 organizations like Americans Coming Together.

Much like the crash of the dot com companies that existed solely for the sake of existing, this political season was all about the crash of dot com campaigning.

The problem for the Kerry campaign was that, while the Democrats made some inroads with volunteer GOTV, they relied heavily on independent groups headed by former high level party members and funded by Democratic contributors. Unfortunately, with the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, these independent 527 organizations are not allowed to coordinate their activites with the Democratic party. To do so would be illegal. While the Democrats could figure out what was going on based on bravado and press statements, the Democratic Party could not see the raw data from the 527s. These groups were left on their own to get out the vote for John Kerry.

In contrast, the Bush campaign used a massive army of loyal volunteers to drive up turnout and get out the vote. While the volunteers were, obviously, not paid, they were fiercely loyal to the President. In fact, according to all of the polls no matter how divergent in their horce race numbers, Republicans were, in this election cycle, more supportive of their candidate than at any other time in the modern history of polling. As a result, the volunteers outmaneuvered, outmanned, and outgunned the 527 machine. Bush/Cheney campaign staff say that this year’s GOTV program was the biggest, most organized, and most effective grassroots movement in the history of Presidential politics. It will most likely turn into the must duplicate GOTV model for both parties.

Another paradigm that stands is the law of political inertia. For a week, the media and many liberal bloggers and organizations became convinced that a swarm of younger voters and first time voters would create a tidal wave of support for John Kerry. Joe Scarborough and I disagreed with that theory. We sided with political physics — voters at rest stay at rest and active voters stay active. The law of political inertia operated just like Newton’s law of inertia. The 527 organizations spent a lot of energy trying to energize new, younger voters. As Joe Scarborough, Isaac Newton, or I could have advised them, it is more efficient and effective to energize already active voters. It takes too much time, talent, and treasure in a campaign season to spend too much time on new voters. While talent was readily available, the 527’s lacked the time and allocated their treasure poorly in efforts to turn out the new, young voters.

Lastly, I tell all of the candidates with whom I consult that they should use the “follow the leader” rule. If every other candidate is doing something, there is probably a good reason and my candidate should also be doing it. This year treated political junkies to lots of stories on the end of political consultants, the rise of the Internet political movement, the ability to fire up new voters, and the need for new theories of campaign management. Despite all of this excitement, all of the old rules tended to hold. Prolific internet fundraisers and “movement” liberals like the DailyKos were not even able to elect their “top 15” list of candidates through aggressive internet organization and mobilization. They came close, but like the Yankees this year, could not close the deal. The danger now will be an aggressive retreat from new technology. Instead, all sides should try to use new techology in existing paradigms instead of creating new paradigms to fit the technology. Much like the crash of the dot com companies that existed solely for the sake of existing, this political season was all about the crash of dot com campaigning.

In the end, this election saw extremely few paradigm shifts. About the only one of note is that political professionals may soon be reaching the end of their ability to conduct useful, meaningful polls and exit polls. The data from the 2004 general election jumped all over the field. Interestingly, had pollsters stayed with traditional models instead of buying into the new voter hype, their track record this year would have been much better.

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Erick Erickson

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