Will Obama put on the makeup?

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 television—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 was—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 decision—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 it—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 Internet—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 online—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 campaign—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 win—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 election—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 idea—”A million strong for Obama”—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 wait—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 smart—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”—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 campaigns—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 communication—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 email—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”—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 that—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 people—connect with people—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?—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 tick—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 door—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.

37 thoughts on “Will Obama put on the makeup?

  1. Yeah, I think the biggest problem political campaigners pretty much all have is a lack of understanding of modern society and how it operates. A bit of abstract thinking to spark viral advertising (without it being too obvious) can go a long way in a campaign, and it takes knowledge of society to know how to spark it.

    For example, my current class president took advantage of Myspace and talked about “social oppression” (not in her own words) to a few select people outside of her mainstream campaign (she’s black) to gain a huge slew of followers, which had her win the campaign by a long shot.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  2. also: the idea that the netroots is an atm machine is, to me, particularly offensive. so every email that contains a “we need your support, please donate,” just screams atm withdrawl.

    instead, especially if these become personal letters from the candidate, change it up. say, “we’re hoping to hire 10 organizers in XYZ state with 3 dedicated to party building in the XX congressional district that i think we can win next cycle with enough effort. those 10 organizers are going to cost $XXXX. if we can raise that money, we’ll do it. who wants to make it happen??”

    change the message to whatever, but give people the sense that they’re actually contributing to something concrete, not just being hit up for cash. if you think about it, all the high dollar donors are getting the same thing – whatever their issue is, they get attention and access for. why shouldn’t the little people get the same thing?

  3. This advice is brilliant. It is so because it speaks to the one thing that really can’t be faked-even on the internets.

    Authenticity.

    All those folks who’ve been spending time driving up “Catch a Predator” (series 593) ratings and worrying about the Nigerian guy who seems to know so much about their dead relatives will snort with laughter at that, but it’s really true.

    On the internet, authenticity isn’t about putting your real name out there. It’s about putting your real self out there, warts and all-with immediacy and on the Googleable record.

    A further word to the candidates whom I pray will tattoo this advice on the inside of their eyelids.

    If you do this, understand that there will be times you let go with something stupid. Or something that isn’t stupid, but that an editor or traditional media outlet with an agenda can use to make you and/or the dirty f-ing bloggers look stupid.

    Your instinct will be to apologize, and pull back behind the moat of traditional campaign communications.

    DON’T DO IT.

    If you said something stupid, apologize ONCE and once only. Anybody asks you for a repeat, keep the link handy to refer them back to, and move the fuck on. Because you have better things to do.

    Every genuine connection you make is someone with a mom, a dad, a best buddy or any number of people who isn’t on the cutting edge of the internets. They won’t be able to wait to tell about the fascinating thing that happened on X’s campaign trail yesterday. They’ll forward it along to everyone in their email address book, and now you’re talking to them, too.

    This is a virus you want to catch. You’ll ride it right into office as the next generation of savvy political leadership.

    Seriously. SERIOUSLY. Listen to this man.

    This idea is so smart I may eventually forgive Zack for the endless (and three times too long) emails taking up space in my inbox…

    Eventually.

  4. I was one of those who gave money to Dean, went to Meet-ups and wrote letters, etc. I’m still glad I did. For all the cries about “electibility” it was clear that Dean was the only one who _could_ beat Bush. We knew Kerry couldn’t do it.

    Just like Dean earned our support, Obama must energize and inspire us if he wants that internet moxie. All those mechanisms that Zack correctly claims are necessary will not work if there is no there there.

    Obama is my current fave in spite of his internet cluelessness. Why?

    –His bring the troops home timetable.

    –His opposition to the war way back when.

    –Fox News Freeze Out. Finally, a pol who is not so cravenly desperate for publicity that he will ignore the fact that Fox is a Republican Party publicity mechanism.

    So, Obama, gather up your goods and follow Zack’s advice.

    BigDuck
    Austin, TX

  5. Obama wants all troops out of Iraq in 2008. If that isn’t enough to get him his million people, nothing is.

  6. Also–and I think this was something Dean did that no one has really been able to replicate–give people ways to get involved, do stuff, and be proud of/root for themselves. Tons of links to meet-ups, rallies, reports from campaign hq in specific geographic neck of the woods. Stories about neat-o stuff volunteers did. Reports on contact numbers weekly. Even basic, low-level strategy discussion like anecdotes about phone-banking and/or block-walking. This all gives people a sense of 1) a movement that is growing, learning from mistakes, increasingly effectiveness, etc., 2) powered by people, not beholden to big donors, D.C. press stories, or lobbyists and consultants. It becomes something that people want to know more about and be a part of.

    That was the great thing about Dean. You always had a sense that if a consultant came in and told him that he needed to tone it down on x, he’d tell that person they were fired on the spot; and yet, all the stuff that happened through volunteers was praised to high heaven. I know some people take that whole picture and reduce something like “the lesson of Dean is that pros have to be in charge,” but that’s really, really wrong. Just thinking about netroots races in the last 2 years, Hackett, Lamont, all the local blog candidates like Tester and Webb proved definitvely how much a real connection with, celebration of, and participation of volunteers beyond money were integral to successful on-line politics. People who were just in it for the money–like say, Ford and Duckworth, who got plenty of small, on-line donations–didn’t take advantage of last year the same way.

    And Deaniacs were always fighting a lot of fear, frustration, despair and skepticism when they made their case in 03 and Bush’s approval ratings were still high. Today, the hope and optimism angle that Obama has cornered already parlays much better into getting people to want to join up, lend a hand and make a difference. Especially given that this model exists already, Obama, in a sense, undermines his own credibility to the extent that he presents himself as a change candidate and then runs the race like everybody else.

  7. What boadicea said. And what Zack said. It takes a leap of faith to go out unfiltered, but running for president is a leap of faith to begin with.

    Please don’t stick me on the mass email list because I sent a message to your general contact address. Bring me back to a politics of contact that hasn’t been seen for decades. Yes, you’ll be parsed and over-parsed by the Gang of 500 Blowhards. But who cares?

    The reviewers of Senator Obama’s books have talked at length about how they have a voice that’s so often missing elsewhere, because the task has been delegated to a ghostwriter. For Michiko Kakutani to say he “is that rare politician who can actually write — and write movingly and genuinely about himself” ought to mean something. Run with it: make your campaign diary a road novel.

    (You know who might do this, instinctively, because that’s what he does now? Al Gore. Not that I really believe he’ll jump in late, but if he chose to do so, my gut sense is that he’d grok the medium.)

  8. That’s some mighty fine consulting their Zack!

    My two favorite lines:
    I say, “Write to people—connect with people—yourself.” And they say, “So, what blogger king should I hire?”

    There is a standard form of political email communication that has been established in the world of non-profits and political campaigns—and it is death.

    The internet is another communication medium, but all the good rules of connecting with others apply. It’s still writing. Words. Ideas.

    Know who you are talking to and tell them your story. Make them a part of it.

    And I also loved the one word from boadicea:

    Authenticity.

    People can tell. But like someone else said, people also authentically make mistakes. Be prepared to deal with them and ask for help. Think for a moment, if you had to do it over again, how would you deal with “The Dean Scream”? Now how can we help our candidates with the next Swift Boat liar or Talk Radio/Drudge Smear?
    How do we beat down Zombie Facts?

    Bloggers have this kind of supportive power, to be everywhere at once, but sometimes they need to know HOW they can help if they can’t give cash.

  9. Sadly, I’m busy with work today, so I don’t have time to give this topic the comment it deserves, but anyone else see the parallels between this method and the way the televangelists work? I know it may be unavoidable, but anyone have some thoughts on what this does to political culture?

  10. All excellent points. Jim Webb’s campaign was the first I’ve ever contributed money to, and the first I’ve ever volunteered to work in. It was all because of the grass-roots, “authentic” nature of it, spurred by the internet. I’m convinced that Webb won because of the internet (and Allen lost because of it). Yes, the other methods are still necessary — phone banks, door to door canvassing, etc. — because not every voter uses the internet that much. But it’s clear that mainstream politicians are using only a small fraction of the its potential.

    And, yes, most of the emails from politicians right now are crap, simply crap. If I get one more of them “from” Barbara Boxer, I’ll scream.

    Oh, wait, I think there’s another one in my mailbox right now…

  11. Actually, Nixon’s problem stemmed from a) not shaving right before the debate, and b) hoping that a stubble concealer called “Lazy Shave” would keep his five o’clock shadow from showing. Unfortunately for Nixon, the Lazy Shave started to melt under the hot TV lights, causing a mini-mudslide on his face that looked much, MUCH worse than if he’d gone without makeup altogether.

    But the point about Obama and the netroots still stands. We’re not just an ATM — we are his only hope of taking out Hillary.

  12. Brilliant.

    The lack of a serious internet strategy on the part of any of the major candidates is why I have held off on backing anyone.

    I assume Al Gore will be the one to do it right, should he get in, though.

  13. This is a great idea, and a spot on analysis of both the power and pitfalls of the internet and email communications.

    It’s so good, in fact, that Wes Clark should adopt it immediately.

    Why Wes? Other than the fact he is actually our most electable, most progressive, most experienced and smartest potential candidate, Wes always “gets it.”

    Zack, you need to email Wes with this. You’ll be glad you did.

  14. The second biggest reason Bill Clinton emails raise the most money, he edits them himself. Working with a principal on a message makes things harder, but it is worth it.

  15. Excellent as always, Zack… It’s certainly too early to know the trajectory of Obama’s web efforts, but I hope sincerely hope he follows a model very similar to the one you’ve laid out here…

  16. Sounds just right, though the 1,000,000-person down payment sounds a bit too much like Oral Roberts’s old threat that “God would call him home” unless supporters gave him $8 million for a medical school at his eponymous university. Then again, he raised $9 million with it …

  17. I love that “1 million supporters” idea. That actually would’ve been a brilliant way to launch this. Evocative of Ross Perot’s “I will only run if supporters in all 50 states get me on the ballot” but without the wacky edge (yeah, yeah, Perot was backing it, but it still was a pretty cool way to gin up his grassroots).

    If I can add a piece of advice (for *any* of the candidates), it is to get “Grassroots communications expert” on board for their grassroots outreach. Maybe “netroots” communications expert is even closer to what they need.

    Here’s what I mean — emails from campaigns these days (and hell, nearly any organization) are invariably written by either:

    1) “The Internet guy”, who got hired because he knows how to do Drupal or RSS feeds, or something else that has not a goddamned thing to do with the content of communications;

    2) “The PR guy,” who might know how to write a press release or a marketing piece, but… who who doesn’t know how to write for the web/grassroots.

    What the campaigns need is someone who really is an expert in writing interesting, persuasive communications, but who knows how to do it in the world of the net. Specifically, they need to understand the power of viral spreading — if your average email recipient has dozens, hundreds, or thousands of addresses in their email address book, they are no longer simply “a volunteer,” but are much more akin to a reporter. You need to give them a story that is worthy of being spread to their peers. (again, just like a reporter).

    But you need to give it to them in “byte-sized” chunks, and you need to recognize that it’s an ongoing, long term relationship being built — not a one time hit. This is where the traditional PR consultants often fail. They don’t take into account the unique enabling abilities of the medium (viral spreading) or don’t use the power of the tools at hand (for personalization, customization, etc.).

    This is not to say that candidates should not write their own emails, and I agree that any one doing “phone time” should certainly consider “email time” as well. But for all the other communication online, get someone who knows how to do it.

    “Viral” is not about flash animation, 3D spinning holigrams, etc., it’s about good, simple, compelling content. And if the campaigns this year can’t take advantage of it, and they don’t get the people on board who know how to do it right — they’re leaving supporters, money, and votes on the table.

    Full disclosure — I helped lead the DraftObama.org effort up until today (when it of course switched to campaign mode), but I am not working for any candidate now… nor do I have any intention of spending another winter in New Hampshire. ;) (lovely state, but until they move the primary to spring, summer, or fall, count me out)

  18. What the campaigns need is someone who really is an expert in writing interesting, persuasive communications, but who knows how to do it in the world of the net. Specifically, they need to understand the power of viral spreading — if your average email recipient has dozens, hundreds, or thousands of addresses in their email address book, they are no longer simply “a volunteer,” but are much more akin to a reporter. You need to give them a story that is worthy of being spread to their peers. (again, just like a reporter).

    But you need to give it to them in “byte-sized” chunks, and you need to recognize that it’s an ongoing, long term relationship being built — not a one time hit. This is where the traditional PR consultants often fail. They don’t take into account the unique enabling abilities of the medium (viral spreading) or don’t use the power of the tools at hand (for personalization, customization, etc.).

    Candidates, tattoo this on your other eyelid.

    You cannot assume that all it takes is one lucky hit, and you’re golden online. What online communications give you is a one to many platform that feels very much like a one to one platform to your reader.

    And like any other one to one relationship, it takes time, patience, and perseverance over miscommunications that inevitably arise.

  19. Yeah I’ve heard some good things about Barack Obama. I heard he had an Iraq de-escalation act. Even people who supported the Iraq war when it began, would probably now agree that it resulted badly, with civil unrest and violence still occurring in Iraq: so probably Obama’s policy is favourable, there. I heard he also wanted to improve the schools, and increase literacy rates, and all of that. I guess I’ll have to read what some of his detractors have to say, to learn the negative side. I’m trying to decide whom it would be best to vote for!

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