Everyone knows the story about the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Nixon showed up at the debate pale, with a terrible 5:00 shadow, and his shirt didn’t fit. He refused to wear makeup to improve his appearance on TV, fearing embarrassment in the press. Even though his performance was comparable to Kennedy’s, he lost the debate in the voter’s minds because he just looked awful.
It was a matter of failing to understand the new medium of televisionÃ¢â‚¬â€of failing to understand it personally, at the highest level of the campaign, at the level of the candidate, campaign manger and senior aides. They knew how important television wasÃ¢â‚¬â€but they still thought of it as some new fangled thing external to politics. Sure, they had media consultants, but they weren’t around when he was putting on his shirt that night, and when he was being asked whether or not he wanted makeup. It wasn’t enough to have TV consultants, Nixon and is inner circle of two or three top aides needed to understand the medium themselves.
Today, of course, all candidates and campaign managers know they must understand television, and media consultants sit within the inner-most circle informing and overseeing every single decisionÃ¢â‚¬â€even down to what shirt to wear for debate night.
For the Internet in politics, it’s 1960 again. And I can’t tell you how painful it is, as someone who knows the power of this medium, to watch a candidate with as much potential as Obama just blowing itÃ¢â‚¬â€just like Nixon did with TV in his first run.
Obama and his senior aides aren’t doing the deep thinking they need to do on their own about this medium. They, like most of their competitors, have delegated “the Internet thing” to staffers who are far outside of the inner circle (“senior staff” is not the inner circle), and have refused to take personal responsibility for understanding the potentials of the medium on their own. In Obama’s case, it’s inexcusable because the Internet is just dying to make him president.
The result is that he is making major campaign decisions without regard to potentials for base building on the InternetÃ¢â‚¬â€most important among them: how to launch the campaign. I know that they would say, “We ARE taking it seriously!” I’ve heard this from campaigns a thousand times. And they think they mean it. But the “Internet strategy” is still something separate, and still not something for which the inner-circle takes full personal responsibility. They need to think about the Internet with the same intensity, curiosity and rigor that they apply to television, polling, speech writing/making and debate performance. This is the cycle when it is just complete idiocy to treat base-building through the Internet with one iota less seriousness than those other critical areas.
One reason it’s so hard for traditional campaign people to understand the Internet is that, for campaigns, it is primarily a grassroots organizing medium. Obama was a grassroots organizer for three years after college. If he puts that organizer hat back on, personally, and figures out this medium, then he should have a great advantage.
If he did that, here’s the kind of thing he’d start coming up with. On February 10th, when he will announce his candidacy, there’s an incredibly simple tactic he could employ to build a massive instant supporter base onlineÃ¢â‚¬â€one that would supply hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground as well as tens of millions of dollars in the primary:
Obama should announce that he is determined to run, but he should say: “I’m only going to run if one million people sign up to work on this campaignÃ¢â‚¬â€one million because that’s only a down-payment on the movement it’s going to take to win this election.”
The rest of his announcement speech should be all about the amazing grassroots movement it’s going to take to winÃ¢â‚¬â€not just the primary, but to beat the Republican money machine in the general.
He should keep his Exploratory Committee in place for the three weeks that it will take him to get to a million. The whole time, the press will be grilling him, “Will you really drop out if a million people don’t sign up?” He’ll have to answer without hesitation: “Yes! Because it’s going to take a massive grassroots movement not only to win this electionÃ¢â‚¬â€but to change the country.” (His traditional campaign advisors would be pulling their hair out in terror and confusion.)
The press will not shut up about Obama’s crazy “million person” sign up tactic. And that’s exactly what will drive the people to sign up. Each day they’ll give the tally. As long as the number is under a million, then the press attention will only grow. There’s not a lot of risk here. Some kid on Facebook had the same ideaÃ¢â‚¬â€”A million strong for Obama”Ã¢â‚¬â€and more than 200,000 people have already signed up…just some random kid, not Obama. A million people would sign up in no time for Obama if he asked.
Oh waitÃ¢â‚¬â€it may not be obvious why it’s so important to have those million+ supporters signed up. What would such an online email base bring? For starters: a ton of volunteers on the ground, a vibrant community of activists all across the country, an instant foundation for a “First Four,” and even a Super Tuesday, field campaign (provided they have a field director who knows what to do with all those email addresses!).
But here’s what the campaign really wants to hear, and what is in fact true: those million signed-up supporters will be worth tens of millions of dollars every quarter from now right up to Iowa. And the million is just a start: if he plays his cards right, that list will double, triple, even quadruple before Iowa.
If he doesn’t pull that “million” trick, he won’t have a million until Iowa (the signups will come in at an enviable rate, but not all at once). He will still raise a lot of money online, but not enough to out-do the massive fundraising power of…well, you know who.
But just you watch: He and his campaign manager are going to leave it to “the Internet guy” to sort out. And the problem isn’t that “the Internet guy” is not smartÃ¢â‚¬â€in fact, he’s brilliant! But he’s not Obama. And he is not sitting in that inner circle. And, no, I don’t mean “senior staff”Ã¢â‚¬â€I mean the candidate’s kitchen table when he’s hammering out those giant decisions such as: “How do we launch?”
Let’s dream, and imagine that Obama did do the “million thing,” instantly growing an industrial-strength supporter base online. Then he will need to continue, everyday, to drive the communication with that base himself. (And this is something that all candidates need to hear.)
There is a standard form of political email communication that has been established in the world of non-profits and political campaignsÃ¢â‚¬â€and it is death. I must confess that I’m one of the half-dozen or so people who brought this form into the position of total domination that it now holds. But before you hunt us down to punish us for the damage done to your inbox, please understand something: we were forced into that awful, soulless form of communicationÃ¢â‚¬â€forced to send out all those crappy, disembodied emails because the candidates and their inner circles (on whatever past campaign) could not be bothered with something as “trivial” as emailÃ¢â‚¬â€even when the email was going to millions of supporters, and raising tens of millions of dollars.
And the medium was still so new and fresh that we got away with it. Dear leaders, we “Internet people” did the best we could without your involvement. We raised a lot of money with those ridiculous emails signed in your names. But guess what? People hate them now. We scorched the Earth. There’s not one sucker left who will take seriously an email signed, “Barak” that’s actually written by Obama’s, “Internet guy.” OK, to be honest, there are a few suckers left. You will raise some money. But not enough. You need $100 million before Iowa. I bet you there’s not even $20 million for you if you do it the old, stupid way and simply bombard people’s inboxes with disingenuous, fake crap. And, as you know, $20 million isn’t enough this time around.
So, candidates, that leaves you with one option: write your own damn emails. And why not? You’re spending several hours each day right now doing “call time”Ã¢â‚¬â€harassing big donors for $4,400 checks. But how much do you actually raise per hour that way? $30,000? $40,000? But if you built a genuine relationship with your email list, then each email would be worth twice thatÃ¢â‚¬â€even if you didn’t ask for money in the email (but only included a “donate” button at the bottom). And each time you actually ask, so long as you have a good reason, you’ll make millions per email.
Building a “genuine relationship” with your supporter base online doesn’t mean simply writing the same boring emails, but writing them yourself. No, it means writing to your supporters from the campaign trail in the same way that you might write to your spouse (without the smoochy stuff) or to a close friend: tell them the exciting things you experienced that day, what they made you think of, a joke you heard, and what occurred to you is really at stake. Some emails could be four pages, and some could be four sentences. Maybe sometimes you should just send a picture you snapped yourself.
If you write to people like that, I promise you, they will go nuts. You will have something amazing on your hands. And you will have taken politics up to a whole new level of honesty and integrity.
I’ve had a chance to make this pitch to many candidates and politicians over the last several years, but I’ve always felt like I was talking in a foreign language. I say, “Write to peopleÃ¢â‚¬â€connect with peopleÃ¢â‚¬â€yourself.” And they say, “So, what blogger king should I hire?”
But who knows, maybe Obama is the guy who will get it. After all, he used to be a community organizer. (Senator, can you remember the neighborhood leaders you worked with back then?Ã¢â‚¬â€back before you got surrounded by lobbyists, consultants and those cynical, hollow-headed people who make up so much of the political world? If so, then just write to write the emails as though you were writing to those leaders, and you’ll do a fantastic job of it. This is an amazing medium, and you, as an organizer, should be able to perform magic with it. Remember how, to get people to show up to the organizing committee meeting, you used to have to call many of the members individually? Remember the conversations you had with them? Remember how well you knew what made those people tickÃ¢â‚¬â€and how you let them see inside you too? So, it’s the same thing here. You’re going to have these millions of supporters. But if you actually want all of them to work for you and donate too, then you’re going to have to connect with them one-on-one. The amazing thing, my fellow organizer, is that this new medium allows you to connect just as personally and just as directly as you used to on the phone and even at the doorÃ¢â‚¬â€but with an unlimited number of people at one click of the “send” button.)
If candidates think they can outsource their emails to “Internet guys,” then why not outsource their role in ads to actors? When they do “call time” to large donors, why not use someone who does a good voice impersonation? You can’t outsource a real personal connection between yourself and your supporters. Come on people: you’re our leaders, this is a new medium for leadership, pick it up with your own two hands and see what you can do with it.