The Future Of Campaigning

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So now Kevin wants me back! After almost a year of net silence, an email popped into my inbox yesterday afternoon from our Prime Minister, hoping to embark again on our glorious internet relationship of last year, with a new website — "KevinPM.com.au".

There may be many similarities between the political strategies and philosophies of Australia’s Prime Minister and the United States President-elect, but a telling divergence is how they managed their relationship with their vast email supporter lists in the aftermath of victory. Whereas Barack has immediately launched a whole new online community called "Change.gov" to engage with the public during the transition, Kevin last emailed me on the day before his win in the Australian federal election. (Not even a celebratory thank you came my way.)

Most Australian media analysis has focused on what the Obama win means for our trade relationship, how many troops we send to Afghanistan, and the global financial crisis. But no doubt one of the biggest affects on Australian politics and political parties will be the nature of Obama’s revolutionary and bottom-up campaigning style.

Here are the key takeaways for Australia’s political parties — and/or anyone seeking "change".

First things first. Money. "I was never the likeliest candidate for this office," Obama said in his acceptance speech last Wednesday. "We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign […] was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had".

Obama convinced a massive number of Americans (at least 3.5 million) to hand over their cash — five, 10 and 50 dollars at a time, whenever they could afford it. While it was McCain who took "public financing" from the Government, Obama raised unprecedented amounts by giving his community a sense of ownership. Far from being offended when one received an email from Barack, often daily, it was empowering — an opportunity for action that allowed an ordinary person to own the result and be part of history.

In Australia, Labor and Liberal should not consider their major-party status inevitable. Cue Hilary Clinton. Two years ago, most assumed Clinton had the Democratic nomination in the bag. More than anything else, Obama’s online community fundraising prowess levelled then dominated the playing field.

It is the minor parties — even parties that do not yet exist — that stand to gain the most from people-powered fundraising. Those that are big enough to say, as Barack Obama did, "this is not about me, it’s about you".

It’s not inconceivable in these days of "me-too" politics that a revamped Australian Democrats (whose internal democracy was unwieldy and off-putting in the snail mail era but well suited to web 2.0) under a charismatic new leader could find 50,000 donors at $100 a pop.

Second, messaging. Australians are rightly pleased our politics lacks the schmaltz and celebrity focus of America’s. But once you tone down the stars and stripes, there is much to admire in Obama’s message, and its delivery (especially compared with Rudd’s unfortunate robot-rhetoric). As Umair Haque of Harvard explores in an excellent blog, while McCain "cancelled" debates and found short-lived advantage in his choice of Vice Presidential candidate, Obama sought to minimise any sense of daily political tactics in his narrative. He sought to maximise "purpose" — providing an overarching and powerful vision.

It is this sense of explosive ambition that inspired so many young voters to turn out, which enabled him to flick away each "petty" attack, and which allowed him to communicate a message of post left-and-right, post racial unification.

Australia needs a new sense of purpose. The climate change crisis presents perhaps the greatest need and strongest opportunity for us to gain that national sense of mission. But after promising signs earlier, that debate has now become mired in minutiae. Penny Wong (if she is serious about emission reductions), and especially our environmental organisations, should take a leaf out of Obama’s book: think big and say "Yes we can".

The Greens could stand to benefit here, but must first be willing to position (and think of) themselves as the unifying centre rather than radical outsider.

Thirdly, Obama didn’t just have a good message, he also got it out in new ways that ensured Americans came to know and be comfortable with him. We’ve become used to politicians speaking to us through glib sound-bites on the nightly news, devoid of any story — and are increasingly turning off. Obama used his best-selling books, Youtube, and an extended 30-minute television infomercial on every channel (directed by Davis Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth) to present a longer form narrative about who he was.

Which brings us to the icing on the cake of Obama’s campaign: what he did with the internet. Records show that in the first quarter of 2007, Obama spent more than four times as much on his internet presence as Hilary Clinton, John Edwards and all the other Democratic primary candidates combined — at its peak the "new media" team (under Howard Dean campaign veteran Joe Rospars) is rumored to have had 60 staff.

The dividend from this early investment was not just financial. Never before has a political candidate seeking office been able to communicate its message directly to 11 million Americans (roughly Oprah’s regular audience size) daily, and have those supporters talk to or otherwise contact millions more.

Through regular and personalised email action alerts and a social networking tool akin to Facebook, Obama mobilised an army of energised grassroots supporters to knock on their neighbours’ doors, stand on street corners waving placards (often in the snow), and make millions of calls to undecided voters in swinging states. You could even download software to an Apple iPhone that would automatically sort through your personal contacts and prioritise the order in which you should call them to canvass for Obama.

It worked. As John Dickerson noted on Slate.com, "According to exit polls, 27 per cent of voters said they were contacted by the Obama camp. Only 19 perc ent say they were contacted by the McCain camp."

Obama succeeded because his regular email communication ensured the base felt like campaign insiders. In September, when the Palin-factor prompted quiet hand-wringing among Democrats, Obama’s Campaign Manager David Plouffe wrote to say he had "recorded a video on my laptop to brief you on the plan" to win the battleground states. It was reassuring stuff, a personal West Wing moment — and it prompted millions more in donations.

We are yet to see anything like this in Australia from the political parties who remain wedded to branch structures, and whose strategy is generally a closely guarded secret. At least so far, KevinPM.com.au does little to break from this mould — essentially a pretty cover for his YouTube content and a more prominent email sign-up box.

Not to say it isn’t a start, or that it can’t evolve. Barack Obama purchased his online tools from a Washington DC company called Blue State Digital — and anyone can do the same. GetUp, which has pioneered this type of organising in Australia, independent of political parties, will likely find stiff competition for punters’ attention from the major parties next time around. (We would expect nothing less from Malcolm Turnbull, whose fortune is largely derived from internet investments.)

The parties could start building the necessary sense of involvement and ownership by making their regular branch activities more transparent — and their resources such as posters and scripts available to download.

Campaigning has clearly been transformed. The question now is — What are the implications of all this for governing? How will Obama wield his 11 million-strong email list over the next four years? Arguably, he can raise hundreds of millions of dollars (billions?) more to help promote his agenda. Will he launch gigantic petitions aimed at Congress members who refuse to pass his legislation? Can he mobilise the social capitol of his campaign volunteers to take real action on his policies — getting retired professionals to help out in schools, creating a service corps of young American volunteers, forging new alliances to help promote the economy?

They’re exciting possibilities, and it seems a pity that I’m on the other side of the world while it’s all happening. So I’ve decided I’ll give Kevin a chance. With the makeover from Kevin07 to KevinPM perhaps he’s a changed man.

I can only hope he will take our relationship more seriously than an email once every 12 months.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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