Folks, things have changed in American politics. Not drastically, despite what our friends in the media would have you believe, but ever so subtly. You see, the more things change in politics, the more they stay the same. No amount of time will ever diminish the need to develop a strong message, connect with the voters, and fund your campaign. The fundamentals of running a good campaign will never change. But around the margins, things are different.
The past ten years in American politics have brought us the Internet revolution and social networking sites, issue ads paid for by one-time, one-issue groups, the 24 hour news cycle, and the end of the daily newspaper as the political source of record. These changes, and others, have made a broad impact on how campaigns are won. To be successful, political campaigns and committees will need to re-adjust their thinking in three key areas:
1. Everything is Viral
The era of the morning newspaper and the evening news as the most trusted sources of news and gossip in American politics is dead. With the proliferation of cable news shows, internet news sites, and independent bloggers, each with their own agendas, people no longer trust what they read or see the way they once did. For many people, those once trusted sources have been replaced by friends, relatives, and colleagues who already have the person’s trust and who share their opinions, forward news stories, and share comments they’ve written on blogs and made around the water cooler. People trust people they already know.
How dies this effect political campaigns? Modern campaigns need to gear their message and activities to this new viral universe, where, much like viruses, ideas spread from person to person via close contact. Get your message to the right people, convince them to support you, and they’ll go out and spread that message among their friends and colleagues. The key for a campaign is to develop a message that motivates, find the right people to share it with, and encourage those people to spread the word.
2. Every Man (and Woman… and Child…) is a King
Not too long ago in American politics, you knew your enemies, and you new your friends, and you knew most of them didn’t matter, at least not in terms of your campaign message. In the era of network TV and big-city newspapers, very few people and groups had the resources to compete. You could write a campaign plan and know, with great certainty, who would be spending money supporting your campaign (your political party, perhaps some of your party’s other candidates) and who would be spending money working against you (your opponent, your opponent’s political party). Money was what mattered in American politics… anyone who didn’t have enough couldn’t afford to get their message out.
Today, money doesn’t matter nearly as much in getting a message out effectively. Ten year old children can set up an effective and engaging website, anyone can write a blog, and even the cost of running a TV ad is relatively cheap on many niche cable channels. Free and low cost ways of getting out a message have led to a new class of friends and enemies that each campaign should take into account. Political campaigns should expect to see attacks on the Internet, via e-mail, and on cable TV, and should seek out opportunities to rebut those attacks and to help supporters who want to use the same methods to assist the campaign.
3. Big Donor Fundraising Matters
For the past ten years, commentators and consultants have been telling us that big dollar donors were a thing of the past… dinosaurs, killed off by the preeminence of Internet fundraising and grassroots efforts. Talking heads have appeared on cable news shows for years, talking about how raising $25,000 from one donor was a thing of the past, while the future was a campaign raising $25 from 1,000 donors. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
True, the Internet and a renewed sense of the importance of grassroots advocacy has changed the landscape of American politics. True, John McCain and Barack Obama raised massive amounts of money from small donors over the Internet. But it is equally true that for the average city council or state assembly campaign, raising $25 from 1,000 donors is not feasible, or is not worth the time and money it would take to achieve.
Remember, it is often much harder to raise contributions, no matter how small, from 1,000 small donors than it is to ask one key supporter for $25,000. Also remember that even John McCain and Barack Obama relied heavily, if not primarily, on big donors to fund their campaigns. Your campaign should work the grassroots and seek out small donors, but remember, the major donor will always be a key part of American politics.