Lessons from the Warner Campaign

For years, Jerome Armstrong has been at the forefront of tech-politics, starting the ur-liberal blog MyDD.com (which spawned DailyKos.com, among others), advising the early Dean campaign, and in 2005 joining Gov. Mark Warner's nascent presidential bid as a senior IT staffer. After Warner announced that he was not running for president, we asked Armstrong to debrief on what he learned planning for the 2008 campaign. Our interview follows.

PDF: What did you learn about the relationship between organizing and technology while working with Warner's PAC?

JA: In the modern Presidential nomination race, you have a couple of organizational strategies that have to be pursued simultaneously. Of course it's a national effort, which is largely process-oriented -- focusing on symbolic and substantive metrics of success -- but on the other hand, organizations defined specific targets (Iowa, New Hampshire…) that were necessary to win the nomination.

If you look back to 2003, one of Howard Dean's campaign successes was due to the campaign's near-monopolization of the process story. The Dean campaign was able to create new metrics of success among the national politicos engaged at this process-oriented level through things like email lists, Meetup numbers, House Parties, and was able to change a traditional fundraising metric through online fundraising numbers. And using the internet was at the core of those strategies. But the strategy didn't really extend to Iowa-based organizing. In Iowa, the Dean campaign's use of technology was not substantively different than any other of the '04 Democratic candidates. So I took a few key lessons away from the Dean experience: to replicate it by creating an online team within the campaign; to not look toward the last campaign but to look outside the political sphere for what works right now; and to fill in the gap by using technology more strategically in the early states.

PDF: What were you proudest of in the work you were doing with Warner?

JA:The putting together of a fantastic team, and the outreach we had into the tech world and the blogosphere. There are currently three big groups in the blogosphere: tech, politics, and entertainment, with sports starting to emerge as well. Through issues like the discussion by the FEC of regulating blogs and net neutrality, we've seen that politics is active in the tech community. And Warner, given his technology background, was a natural candidate for making in-roads into this community.

The Warner Internet team: Jerome Armstrong, Pablo Mercado, Trei Brundrett, Nancy Scola, Nate Wilcox, and Adam Conner

PDF: In your view, what technologies work well in campaigns and what don't?

JA: We are fragmenting into such a niche model of communication, that I don't think I'd point toward any one use of technology that fails to work well, but instead I'd point toward a common failure of tactics in the use of technology by campaigns. This is what I'd call the candidate-centric model of website strategy. Part of this probably stems from the success that the Dean campaign had, so candidates look to replicate that model. But the truth is that the community of online activists was just starting out then, and is much more mature now. A candidate website, even one for someone seeking the Presidential nomination, can't expect to compete with the number of eyeballs that the top blogs are getting. The failure, for example, is of not adopting the Web 2.0 platforms, integrating sites such as Flickr and YouTube into the websites for multimedia content, Blogads and search-terms for advertising, and tags and rss for content. There are some really interesting multimedia mashup platforms being developed that campaigns should be looking at to get their content out there.

PDF: What will be the role of email in future campaigns?

JA:It's an important one, but one of many niche mediums of communication. I think campaigns are going to have to rely less upon email for fundraising than they did in 2004.

PDF: What sites or tools were other campaigns using that impressed you?

Armstrong: On the tool side, I was impressed by a Republican site, the Perry Alliance Network, with its utilization of a points-based rewards and incentives program in its online activism, something that's all too lacking within campaign and organizational social networking sites. By far though, the more impressive was the amount of blogger coordination that happened in '06, such as the Internet outreach done by Jon Tester's Senate campaign, and the integration of in-state bloggers by Jim Webb's Senate campaign, notably through Raising Kaine.

PDF: What hurdles do we have to overcome for technology to reach its fullest potential?

JA: What I would point toward is the lack of integration. It's the underlying integration of the database with the tools that is lacking on the Democratic side. Take for example Sherrod Brown's site, which I led the development of in '06, with the content strategy being led by Phil De Vellis. It was similar to Howard Dean's site in that there were a lot of different tools for activists to use. However, they were not connected to an underlying database. I once thought the solution was through creating a platform with all of the latest and greatest tools on it, but the problem here is that you wind up with only with what that vendor has on the platform, or you wind up with six different platforms and vendors in use, and none of them interconnected.

You can get beyond the data silo problem by using one vendor in return for creating a gatekeeper problem (Ben Schaffer has written more on this problem), or look for a solution. The way we were getting beyond this problem in Warnerland was by creating a User Account Module (UAM). The UAM allows multiple web applications to share a single repository of user data and provides a single point of integration with other enterprise systems, such as our CRM. If a vendor came to us with a great app or tool, all they would need to do is use the UAM's API to access and integrate with user data.

PDF: What emerging technology or web-based practice do you think will have the biggest impact in 2008?

JA: Related to the above, OpenID (on OpenID-enabled websites, users don't need to create and manage a new account for every site before being granted access. Instead, they only need to be able to authenticate with a trusted site that supports OpenID, called the identity provider, which we are setting up through netroots.com). For the netroots, that's going to make moving across the blogs and interacting much easier for the users. It would be even better in combination with shared social networking tools that the communities would be able to participate within, and atop a nationwide field platform that would give the local activists more organizing power. This will also provide the backbone for progressive candidates and organizations to tap into the netroots.

PDF: What new technologies are you excited about?

JA: AJAX is very nice, not that it really changes anything, but it's making the experience more dynamic seems cool (plus it cuts down on server load for big communities). The video mashup services that are coming along are going to shake up the video production world like text blogging has traditional journalism. The video blogger will be able to take a snippet from a video stream on some subject, integrate their own video commentary before and after ‘the news” and participatory television news begins. It's just a matter of getting the technical barrier low enough for wider adoption and then direct democracy takes over.

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