The New Field Frontier

by digby

One of the most interesting things about this primary race is something that nobody's talking about, but it's hugely important and may make the difference come November.

Matt Stoller wrote about it in The Nation this week:

About twice as many Democrats voted in Iowa as Republicans. "We'd better be careful as a party," Mike Huckabee warned his fellow Republicans in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, "because if we don't give people something to be for, and only something to be against, we're going to lose that next election, and there are some fundamental issues that we lose with it." Mike Podhorzer, deputy political director of the AFL-CIO, puts it this way: "You have dead turnout on the Republican side and insane turnout on the Democratic side."

There are, no doubt, a number of factors driving the disparity: the amount of money Democrats have sunk into the early states has quadrupled since 2004, and polls show that Democratic voters are confident their nominee will eventually win, while half of Republican voters are so demoralized they're considering a third-party option [see Micah Sifry, page 24]. But there's also a more prosaic explanation: since 2004, because of a mixture of improved technology, better organizers and more investment in voter contact, Democratic campaigns have simply gotten better at talking to more people.

It is prosaic, but it's important. One of the big successes of the Obama campaign, for instance, is the successful courting of the ever elusive youth vote, which has been touted as the promised land so often that older cynics like me are prone to dismiss it out of hand. But it seems to be real this time and it has to do with the inspirational style and generational identification with the candidate but also the technology the campaign is using to reach their potential voters.

Stoller gives a fascinating (to political junkies anyway) primer on how studies have shown that people make their decisions to vote and goes into detail about how this new field operation (which is not confined to Obama, by the way, but is merely being used effectively to tap into the younger voters who like him)was developed over the past couple of voting cycles.

Stoller concludes:

These systemic changes considered in isolation can seem arcane, but they all facilitate a larger cultural movement, one that points toward a very different kind of postbroadcast politics. As author Seth Godin, who analyzes consumer trends, explains it, "The key assumption in the analysis of typical field organizers is this: one persuaded equals 1.1 or perhaps 1.5 votes. In other words, the multiplier is very small. That's why you need to run lots of ads and do lots of direct mail. It's not very efficient, it's very expensive, but you can really pile it on. The idea is that if you hit someone ten or twenty or a thousand times, sooner or later you'll get some conversion. Obama and [Ron] Paul do different math. They assume a multiplier of three or even six. Which means that creating (and living) a story that turns people evangelical is far more efficient than hewing to the middle of the road. They assume that if they can create a passionate, raving fan, they'll be able to translate that into a virus, an idea that spreads and scales over time. When that happens, they end up stoking the fire instead of lighting a lot of matches over and over again. Starbucks did this, believe it or not. They converted people into coffee fiends (particularly Starbucks fiends), who then converted their friends. And it happens on the net all the time."

In the post-1972 TV era, Democratic campaigns didn't have the tools or trained organizers available to direct large numbers of volunteers efficiently to where they needed to be. Now they do. And social networks like Facebook, Blackplanet, blogs and SMS, as well as basic e-mail, can be layered onto the clean new databases to reach voters wherever they are, for much less money than TV advertising. We are in the middle of a massive wave of campaign innovation, led by organizers who will eventually spread outward to every nook and cranny of progressive politics. The larger significance of this architectural revolution in progressive politics isn't clear, but it is the first sustained challenge to the dominance of television and direct mail in the political system since those media displaced urban party machines in the 1960s. For now, it's working against Republicans: "Democrats have a very significant natural advantage in the technology area, which is that younger people are much more Democratic," said Podhorzer. But this advantage isn't permanent. "If the 1960s, '70s and '80s have a lesson, it's that the inherent character of the shift in technology, whether it's to direct mail or broadcast or social networks, may have some bias toward one ideological side or another, but it also matters what the players do. Something may in its first, completely anarchic moments favor one side, but in the end it's not like the major economic interests that create a right wing in the country say, 'Oops, they've got the answer; now we're not going to win anymore.'"

That's certainly true. But this election on the Republican side is so deranged that you have to assume they actually want to lose, which I think is actually the case. They need some daylight between them and the Bush administration failures. (The Republicans are very adept at advancing their agenda even when they lose. They actually prefer being the fly in the progressive ointment in many ways and the Democrats have never figured out how to deal with the fact that they get off on messing with their heads as much as messing with their agenda. But I digress...)

This is an exciting development. The conservative movement was built on direct mail. All the big movement strategists and GOP political strategists made their bones figuring out how to properly target their voters and build a bigger coalition. They aren't up to speed on this new electronic frontier, largely because their message and agenda just don't resonate with the younger people who are comfortable in it. As the article says, that will change, both as the Republicans learn how to harness it effectively and the population ages. But right now, it's wide open for progressivism and that is good news.

Update: Here's an interesting post on this subject pertaining to Mike Huckabee.