Until It Got Help From the Internet
Those of us who get paid to commit acts of political journalism are fond of overstatement. The trade tends to attract excitable types, easily bored and always on the prowl for new stimuli. I’m not going to say that the Internet was invented for political journalists – that would be a bit of an overstatement, wouldn’t it? – but sometimes it seems to have been reverse-engineered to our specific requirements and habits. In fact, you could say the same about every facet of American politics, from journalism to gerrymandering, from polling to poll watching. Ask the question, What has the Internet changed in American politics? And the answer is inevitable: Everything. That’s not an overstatement.
Long before the Internet embedded itself into the patterns of our daily lives, in the late 1990s, computing power had already transformed political practice in ways that now seem obvious to us, though their significance dawned on practitioners only in slow motion. Opinion polling became easier to do and (allegedly) more accurate. The act of counting votes was streamlined and accelerated. Journalists could write faster, if not better. The organizing of campaigns was routinized. The mother’s milk of politics – other people’s money – could be accounted for more accurately and quickly. And most consequential of all, the ancient art of gerrymandering could be practiced with laser-like precision, giving whichever party was drawing district boundaries a long-term advantage. Thanks to the computer revolution, in some states, there are large apartment buildings that have wings in different congressional districts.
Then came the widespread use of the internet, making all that computing power portable and universally accessible. The first real presidential campaign of the Internet age followed in 2000. Again the possibilities became apparent incrementally. The first “aha!” moment occurred in the campaign operation of John McCain, who was challenging George W. Bush, then the governor of Texas, and an improbable gaggle of lesser pols (Gary Bauer? Elizabeth Dole?) for the Republican presidential nomination. Having lived in Washington most of his life (not counting five years in a Vietnamese prison camp), and having been in Congress and then the Senate for nearly 20 years, McCain was running a maverick campaign against the “establishment” as a Washington outsider.
Unlucky for Dean, the Internet also alerted millions of voters to the fact that he was sanctimonious, short-tempered, and far too intense for prime time – in short, a pretty scary candidate.
And for some reason people were buying it. McCain’s unexpected popularity came the old-fashioned, pre-Internet way – through relentless travel, dreary fundraising lunches, constant public speaking, and endless flesh-pressing. But his young staff toyed with the gadgets the web made possible. They outfitted the press bus with an early version of Wi-Fi and created a website for messaging and donations. The Internet trappings made the crotchety grandpa (McCain was 64, ten years older than Bush) seem hip. Almost.
Everyone in the political world – including the McCainiacs – were astounded when dark horse McCain trounced frontrunner Bush in the all-important New Hampshire primary. And they were even more astounded the next day. The McCain staff watched in disbelief as the meter on its donations page went up and up and up until it hit tilt! Without lifting a finger, McCain raised half a million dollars in twelve hours, a record that only the web could have made possible. His organization also had captured the email addresses of thousands of potential volunteers. Aha.
Strange as it seems today, it was those mossback Republicans, led by Bush that fall, who registered these first stirrings of Internet disruption, not merely in fundraising but in advertising too. Bush’s campaign put up ads on dozens of (relatively) well-trafficked sites, reaching millions of voters at near-zero cost. The Democrats timidly limited themselves to a single ad on Yahoo. This tardy recognition of the power of the Internet is all the more remarkable when you remember that their candidate, Al Gore, invented the damn thing.
By the next election, in 2004, Democrats had got it figured out. Another “anti-establishment” candidate, a politically anonymous former Vermont governor named Howard Dean, hired as his campaign manager a youngish consultant, Joe Trippi, who was well-versed in the web. They combined the insight from McCain’s campaign – that the Internet enables you to raise lots of money real fast – with a recognition of its power to attract like minded supporters instantaneously from everywhere all at once.
They took as their model MoveOn.org, a huge website founded to organize opponents of Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and 1999. Trippi used a free website called MeetUp.org to connect potential Deaniacs to the campaign and to one another. By the end of 2003, Dean had raised $50 million, breaking his own record at the end of every quarter throughout the year. The majority of the money arrived over the web in increments of $100 or less. And he had fielded a mailing list of 600,000 committed volunteers.
To understand how astonishing these numbers are, consider the Paleolithic era, back in the 1970s and 80s, when a group of con artists called the “direct mail industry” were fleecing thousands of campaigns (and businesses, too). Direct mail professionals – I use the term loosely – were hired by campaigns to solicit money from likely donors using information they had physically collected from voting rolls or bought from their colleagues in the industry. Direct mail was a cumbrous process. It was lengthy and highly inefficient (by design, a few patsies suspected). It entailed enormous overhead inflated by outlandish fees. But, along with equally scattershot broadcast advertising, it was the only game in town, short of hiring campaigners to go door to door stealing spare change from under the voters’ sofa cushions. If 1.5% of direct mail recipients responded positively after a mailing of a few million cards or letters, it was considered a spectacular success. If the rate of return fell too far below that, however, the campaign might not even get its money back.
The direct mail industry is still alive, as anyone with a mailing address in a contested congressional district can attest every other November. But just barely. The Internet broke its stranglehold over mass political fundraising. Dean proved that the web could bring you money, name identification, and the attention of devoted followers, at very little cost. What it couldn’t bring you, at least on its own, was victory.
Dean’s message of radical reform and socialized medicine went viral thanks to the Internet. Unlucky for him, the Internet also alerted millions of voters to the fact that he was sanctimonious, short-tempered, and far too intense for prime time – in short, a pretty scary candidate. For all its digital wizardry, the Dean campaign effectively ended with his maniacally hysterical performance at a post-primary rally. (To this day, the “I Have a Scream speech” has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube.) Here was one traditional campaign barrier the new technology hadn’t been able to breach: If you wanted to win, you needed a candidate who was presentable in polite company.
Which is where Barack Obama comes in. Obama’s 2008 campaign set a smooth-talking candidate with wide appeal – he could be a college professor one moment, a fiery preacher the next, and a slippery pol in between – atop an organization that perfected all of the Dean campaign’s digital tricks and added its own. Not only could you use the web to seek out supporters and connect them to one another; you could use it to build personal profiles of each volunteer and probable voter, neighborhood by neighborhood, block to block, even house to house. The web could bring you inexpensive data with which you could catalogue and cross tabulate their special issues, their voting history, the intensity of their support – bits of information that could then be assembled in any combination to predict voting patterns and point to where resources could most efficiently be used. It was narrowcasting of a kind that had never been possible before.
Without it, Obama wouldn’t have beaten his rival Hillary Clinton in 2008, and wouldn’t have become president. Convention delegates, then as now, were allocated in one of two ways – by primary and by caucus (or statewide convention). Primaries, says the conventional wisdom, are won by overwhelming resources: Tons of money for statewide advertising, direct mail, local consultants, and paid canvassers. Caucuses, by contrast, are won by a superior organization animated by an abundance of grassroots enthusiasm.
Hillary Clinton, with her professional staff and brimming coffers, gave the Internet only cursory attention. While she sunk millions into traditional TV ads – the kind inflicted on increasingly annoyed viewers whether they like it or not – Obama concentrated on custom-designing YouTube ads to reach deep into target audiences. These were essentially free. During the primary season his ads were watched a total of 14.5 million hours. An equivalent viewership on TV, Joe Trippi calculated, would have cost $47 million.
The result is well known. Clinton excited no one and won nearly every primary in 2008. Obama whipped his volunteers into a froth and won nearly every caucus. And that’s where the votes were. Clinton never knew what hit her.
Once in office, Obama’s administration said it would use the Internet to make government more transparent, to reach out to the people and “bring them into the process.” The results were unimpressive. With great fanfare Obama announced a new portal on the White House website, called “We the People.” Ordinary citizens could go online and directly file petitions with the government demanding a change in one policy or another. “We the People” was to be a model of citizen empowerment in the Internet age. Eventually 4,779 petitions were filed over the eight years of the Obama administration. According to the Pew Research Center, the White House responded to 227 of them. Searching for some concrete change in government as a result of the initiative, Pew researchers finally fell upon the fourth most-signed petition from “We the People.” The petition demanded that the president appear on “Real Time with Bill Maher.” And he did. In Obama’s case, digital expertise was better suited to politicking than governing.
Candidate Obama, an obscure Midwesterner with few resources and scarcely two years as a U.S. senator, hopped over the traditional barriers to entry that the Internet had lowered. But lowered barriers did more than just embolden obscure candidates. Everyone with a laptop and an opinion about politics could, if their tolerance for boredom was high enough, become a published political pundit. With no printing or transportation costs, the web made way for an ever expanding number of outlets devoted to political news. It turned out that there were hundreds of political junkies in the vast heartland with their specialized knowledge of every aspect of the field. They were easily the equal of the traditional pros. In many instances their blogs blossomed into full-service news sites – PJ Media on the right, for example, and Talking Points Memo on the left.
The glut of outlets led to a kind of news inflation. There were too many political reporters chasing too little political news. So the definition of “news” was defined dramatically down. The political class, facing an endless sluice of information flowing through the Internet, could begin obsessing over developments at a level so granular that it was interesting only to themselves. “Granular” is a nice word; trivial is less nice but more accurate. How do 2016 per capita media expenditures by Republicans in Nebraska’s third district compare with Democratic expenditures in Iowa’s fifth in 2014? An overwhelming amount of political news today resolves around such stupefying questions, now that the web has made them answerable. What deputy finance assistant on which congressman’s campaign made a slighting remark about whose volunteer press secretary? Somewhere a reporter is working the story. Probably two reporters. Probably more.
And when they’ve got the story, they’ll release it to the world, at no more than 240 characters, on the web’s ultimate information delivery device. Twitter is the next step in a devolution touched off by the Internet in its takeover of the political world. It is a conveyance designed for triviality. And the excitable people who report on politics are now more than ever consumed with the trivial – technical questions about process, gossip about nobodies, developments that loom fleetingly large but point to nothing beyond themselves. The world of politics has become a constant churning of momentary obsessions, apparently earth-shaking until the next Crisis of the Century arises an hour from now.
There’s an unhappy paradox here. The web, with its dazzling potential to democratize politics, with its promise to take public affairs from the hands of a remote elite and return them to ordinary people, has in fact made politics look more than ever like the hobby of a specialized cabal. The sheer volume of politics is exhausting and, to a normal person, off-putting. As technology drives ordinary voters and political practioners further apart, the distaste of the first group for the second group, and vice versa, only intensifies.
So thoroughly has the Internet transformed politics that it has even breached that last barrier to entry that we mentioned above. Howard Dean’s campaign had the money, the message, and the energy necessary to win. What it didn’t have was a candidate – someone who was personally attractive to most voters. Dean did himself in, and the Internet couldn’t save him. Twelve years later, in 2016, even Donald Trump couldn’t do himself in. As election day approached, voters told pollsters they were quite aware of Trump’s failings as a man and a candidate. They elected him anyway, thanks in part to some clever data mining made possible by the web. It brought him just enough votes from unexploited pockets of Pennsylvania and Michigan to flip the Electoral College and win the presidency. Thanks, Internet.
It is no accident, as the commies used to say, that Trump’s favorite means of communication is Twitter. It accommodates petulance and resists chains of reasoning. It can make him the center of attention to everyone everywhere all at once. It suits him – and it suits what politics has become in the Internet age. The president is fond of punctuating his tweets with summary judgments: “TOO BAD!” “NOT GOOD!” It is fitting to give him the last word, as we gaze upon American politics in this era of disruption: SAD!
Andrew Ferguson is the author of several books, including Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a current senior editor at The Weekly Standard.