Social Media and Elections: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, revisited

A few years ago Howard Dean’s campaign manager Joe Trippi published a book called “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” I attended the AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford in 2005 when he came and spoke about his experience managing the Dean campaign. (And I bought three signed copies of his book, for me and my two friends who were trying to launch a political site called iCount.com — we never pulled it off.)

Trippi shared amazing stories about the real-time nature of the first web-savvy presidential campaign. The Dean campaign was electrified by smart use of the web for organizing volunteers and responding to them–making it their campaign, their candidate, their election to win or lose. Dean raised huge amounts of capital from small donations, but lost the primary, ironically in large part because TV helped turn the tide against him.

Trippi recalls his experience with the campaign as they went from long-shot to front runner in less than a year:

For the better part of a year, I have been the one person inside Howard Dean’s presidential campaign saying that we could actually win. Back when I signed on as campaign manager, back when we had seven people on staff, $100,000 in the bank, and only four hundred thirty-two known supporters, back when you answered the phones yourself or they just kept ringing, back when Howard Dean was little more than an asterisk, the last name on a long list of Democratic presidential candidates, I was the one looking people in the eye and telling them: Look, we’re gonna win this frickin’ thing. Now, here it is the end of 2003, and we’re actually on top, ahead in the polls, in the process of raking in more than $50 million, $15.8 million in this fund-raising quarter alone—a record—most of it from small donations of $100 or less. And whose fund-raising record are we beating? Our own! From the quarter before. We have an army of almost 600,000 fired-up supporters, not just a bunch of chicken-dinner donors, but activists, believers, people who have never been politically involved before and who are now living and breathing this campaign. Through them, we have tapped into a whole new vein of democracy and proven the Internet as a vibrant political tool. Now everyone is paying attention.

The amazing thing about the Dean campaign was that it had to create a lot of online community organizing tools from scratch. They did take advantage of Meetup.com, but that social network has never really gone mainstream. Facebook wasn’t even founded until 2004, and even then it was limited to college-aged students. It wasn’t opened to the general public until September 2006, and now there are countries where almost half the population are Facebook users. In the U.S., there are now 85,526,360 Facebook users. That is 28.1% of the population. And the continuing growth of Facebook in the U.S. is staggering. In July, that number was 69 million.

Last night I bought the “revised edition” of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” on my Amazon Kindle so I could see what Trippi had to say about the Obama campaign — he was on the Edwards team — and to read his thoughts about the rise of Facebook and Twitter, and the impact of these social media on elections.

Commenting on the 2006 election cycle, Trippi says:

By the time 2006 was over, at least two U.S. senators—Tester in Montana and Jim Webb in Virginia—owed a large part of their victories to early support from online activists.

But by 2008, online (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter) made a huge impact in the presidential campaign, and Trippi thinks politics will never be the same again.

He shared one story of how an individual Facebook user could help energy a campaign:

Back in February, before I joined the Edwards campaign, Farouk Olu Aregbe, a twenty-six-year-old in Columbia, Missouri, was so excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy that he started a group on Facebook.com named “One Million Strong for Barack.” I didn’t know who the hell the guy was—no one knew who the hell the guy was—but by the time I joined Edwards in April, just six weeks later, more than four hundred thousand people had joined Farouk’s quest to bring one million supporters into Obama’s camp.

Trippi clearly feels awe for the massive growth of social networks and how easily campaigns can now engage with voters and be directly influenced by their democratic power. He makes it clear in his book that he feels extremely grateful to have been a part of the Dean campaign–the first major online presidential campaign, even though it ultimately lost–and for all the opportunities to consult worldwide that his leadership there has given him. But I can tell that he would have loved to have been on the winning team this time around–the first presidential election that was really fought and won with social media. He says:

DeanLink and DeanSpace paled in comparison to MySpace and Facebook and the millions and millions who were members of social networks as 2008 approached. Where Dean had had a photo gallery, now Flickr.com allowed millions to post photos, “tagging” them so that if you searched your favorite candidate’s name you could view every picture taken at a rally and posted just a few hours before. Our primitive text messaging network on Upoc.com may have been visionary at the time, but just four short years later it was nothing compared to Twitter, the hot new mobile social texting network.

Trippi believes that future candidates will be elected not from traditional “top-down” “big donor” party-insider based campaigns, but rather they will be chosen and funded by the grass roots, which he calls the “netroots.” In other words, We The People, who can now self-organize, choose our candidates, attract volunteers and raise gobs of money from small online donations. He seems quite optimistic about the chances for the people to take back politics after 50 years of corrupt transactional politics that have resulted in more and more TV ad spending and less and less voter turnout and activism.

This phenomenon will certainly not appear in all races at all levels at the same time. Famed science fiction writer William Gibson did say, “The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.”

But during every subsequent campaign cycle there will be a greater and greater chance that grassroots candidates who are truly skilled in using social media will emerge. They will be able to capture the imagination of large voter blocks, create new engagement with volunteers and voters, and win elections with less money needed for television ads and direct mail. Last year a 21-year old in South Carolina was elected to the school board after running a Facebook-only campaign.

Of course all campaigns are eager to reach large online populations with their message and raise money.

In 2000, presidential campaigns raised $528.9 million. In 2004, that jumped to $880 million. And in 2008 the campaigns raised $1.74 billion, an increase of 3.29x in just 8 years. During that same time, the number of Internet users in the U.S. more than doubled. Today almost 3/4ths of the U.S. population are online and more than a third of them are now on Facebook.

Barack Obama raised $745 million during the campaign. (Source: OpenSecrets.org Barack Obama Page) Obama campaign spokesman Ben Labolt said the campaign had more than 2.5 million total donors.

That really is amazing. Fund raising online is a very smart thing for campaigns to do. But that is not Trippi’s point in talking about a revolution in politics and it is not what interests me either.

What is most exciting of all to me is the prospect of elected representatives using social media not only during campaigns but after they are elected. They have the potential to make the act of governing open, transparent and accessible to all. They have the ability to use social technology to energize the citizenry to solve major problems, whether through the agency of government or from private initiative.

I started college as a political science major, but after college I’ve been in high tech for the past 20 years. Like Trippi, I’m a gadget guy and fascinated by technology, but I also love politics. I have a deep passion for our country and its founders, for our constitution, and for the liberty and justice the founders sought to secure for all by forming the union, with all its checks and balances.

As I study history, I find that many of the most important checks and balances are now gone. The federal government has usurped over the past 100 years many of the powers that were originally left to the states and the people. Today, a few people in Washington wield enormous power and influence and are subject to almost no checks and balances. Can you imagine what the founders would have thought — after all they risked to defy King George III for his abuses of power — when the US Congress voted in late 2008 to give a single individual — the Secretary of Treasury — the ability to use $700 billion of taxpayer dollars to try to prevent an economic collapse? He had the power to to pick and choose which financial institutions to bailout and which to let fail. I think giving such power to one person is unprecedented in American history. We definitely need a revolution from this kind of governing!

When the $700 billion become available to the Treasury department, the rule of law was out the window, and the politics of influence were in full force. On Nov. 11, 2008 the New York Times published an article entitled “Lobbyists Swarm The Treasury for a Piece of Bailout Pie.”

Jeb Mason, who as the Treasury’s liaison to the business community is the first port-of-call for lobbyists. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers among industries.”

Mr. Mason, 32, a lanky Texan in black cowboy boots who once worked in the White House for Karl Rove, shook his head over the dozens of phone calls and e-mail messages he gets every week. “I was telling a friend, ‘this must have been how the Politburo felt,’ ” he said.

I personally believe in limiting the role of government and simultaneously unleashing the creativity and philanthropy of the private sector to solve problems. French philosopher Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law” describes what he viewed as the proper role of government — to protect life, liberty and property. He criticized governments that engaged in “legal plunder” by taking goods from one group of people and distributing them to another. As fellow Frenchman Alexis d’Tocqueville admired US citizens for their civic and religious involvement and self-government, Bastiat admired the United States for limiting its government for the most part to its “proper domain.” But he criticized the US for two abuses of governmental power, slavery and tariffs, and was prescient about the risk that these could “bring terrible consequences to the United States.”

… look at the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United States, there are two issues – and only two – that have always endangered the public peace. Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of plunder. Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property. Its is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime – a sorrowful inheritance of the Old World – should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States – where only in the instance of slavery and tariffs – what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of law is a principle; a system?

As in Europe, the role of government in the U.S. has now expanded in virtually every conceivable way. Government spending as a percentage of GDP has grown from under 10% in 1900 to more than 40% in 2009-2010. (Source: usgovernmentspending.com)

I am personally optimistic and enthusiastic about the role of social media in future elections and in government. Efforts like the Sunlight Foundation, Project Vote Smart, and GovTrack.us hold great promise. Now imagine when these and many other citizen-empowering web sites become social by using Facebook Connect or other technologies! Imagine if government data and actions become so open and transparent and social that millions of Facebook users every day could actually be involved in self-government, instead of merely playing Farmville and Mafia Wars.

At FamilyLink.com, we are taking our first baby step to participate in the intersection of social media with politics and government by launching SocialFire.com. Our politics page will track the number of Facebook supporters and Twitter followers for every major election in the U.S.

We have the ability to help campaigns attract thousands of additional supporters and followers and to run “flash polls” that can get hundreds of immediate answers to any question that political campaigns want to ask. We have used our internal survey tool since March and have gotten more than 30 million answers from our site visitors to help us decide what products, services, and features to develop next.

Our Socialfire team is talking with several candidates who could jump start their 2010 campaign by using our poll and advertising capabilities to attract hundreds or thousands of supporters/volunteers/donors.

If you are in politics, you should draw an important lesson from the Dean and Obama campaigns. You should realize that campaigns will be won and lost based on how effectively you use social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter, to engage with your potential supporters, volunteers, and donors. Since the average Facebook user now has 130 friends (source: Facebook press room), if a political campaign gets 10,000 active Facebook supporters, then through those 10,000 they actually have the ability to reach 1.3 million people!

Only 6 current Senators or challengers for the US Senate in 2010 currently have more than 10,000 Facebook followers, including Senator John McCain. Two of these are high profile challengers, Peter Schiff (running against Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd) and Rand Paul (Senate candidate in Kentucky), son of former US Presidential candidate Ron Paul, have more than 10,000 Facebook followers.

And the funding is already starting to flow to these social media savvy campaigns. Paul has raised more than $1 million already for his Kentucky Senate race from more than a thousand donors. Peter Schiff’s campaign is approaching $1 million as reported on his official Facebook page.

One Comment

  1. Cherilyn Eagar

    Paul, thanks for this update. I just returned from a national conference of policy leaders in St. Louis and was on the program with Cong. Michele Bachmann, Tom Price, Steve King and Tom McClintock -as well as Joe the Plumber (!) My husband and I own a a real estate Internet marketing company and we routinely train that industry to use the Internet and social networking to expand their businesses. I was at this conference to teach these leaders, candidates and potential candidates how to use the Internet to win their campaigns.

    Good work!
    Cherilyn Eagar
    US Senate 2010 (R-UT)
    http://www.eagar4senate.com
    http://twitter.com/CherilynEagar
    http://www.facebook.com/cherilyn.eagar
    http://www.youtube.com/user/Eagar4Senate

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