What must Republicans learn from the Obama Campaign?

By Max Everett

As often happens in political parties after an election defeat, Republicans are in the midst of soul searching and rebuilding. While the traditional activities such as finding a new voice for the party, annunciating winning ideas, and recruiting new candidates are occurring, another discussion is also underway. Political professionals at every level are attempting to distil the lessons of the Obama campaign and its incredibly effective efforts on the internet.

The constant television ads that voters in swing states are subjected to every fourth November will continue to lose ground; a survey released this year
showed that Americans are now spending as much time online as they do watching TV each week. Political operatives for both parties are beginning to understand that how campaigns and candidates talk to the electorate is changing more quickly than any time since the advent of television, and in ways that are fundamentally different from traditional mass media.

Social networks have become the great buzzword in fields from politics to social science to marketing, and with good reason. Never before has there been a place where people gathered together based on such a virtually endless catalog of common interests. From political interests to ownership of a particular breed of dog to love of a particular product, there is probably a social network somewhere online devoted to it. The ability to communicate in a targeted manner to a group sharing common interests is rapidly becoming the new retail politics.

The ‘magic’ driving political opportunity on all these new channels to communicate online is data. Politics has long been driven by data, from national opinion polls to counting the votes at a straw poll; but the volume and depth of the data available on the Internet is qualitatively different. Instead of general messages, based on broad models of voters, granular information from social networks, cookies, and geo-targeting now allow messages to be tailored and focused to an audience of one in some cases. Traditional voter files can now be appended to commercial advertising data and social network data, so campaigns can channel get-out-the-vote efforts to particular voters, on specific streets in specific precincts, who voted in previous elections, and appear to fit their profile of likely voters.

But perhaps the biggest change brought on by these advances in technology is a change in expectations. Users of social networks online expect, in fact demand, interactivity. We see this in the massive growth of new social networks that offer people ways to not only connect, but also control their experience online. Those who will succeed in using this medium understand that it is a two-way street. Simply blasting a message out will not bring results. In fact, that type of behavior online may have a very negative effect.

The core lesson of the Obama campaign may be the desire for voters to feel involved in the campaign and no longer simply be spectators. Participants in social net- works expect to see results of their involvement, and that helps drive perhaps the greatest value of social networks for candidates. The Obama campaign’s effort resulted in online supporters creating thousands of hours of video on YouTube and contacting millions of their friends and neighbors. It also helped them create an unprecedented fundraising engine – people are more likely to donate to something in which they feel a sense of ownership. It remains to be seen whether Republicans can learn and apply the lessons from the Obama efforts and apply them broadly to campaigns of all sizes.

Max Everett received his B.A. in government in 1994. He also holds a J.D. from the University of Houston, worked on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns, has served at several federal agencies, and was previously chief information officer for the White House and the 2008 Republican National Convention. He is currently chief technology officer at NetPower Strategy.