Ed. note: Ideas that are not original are appropriately cited throughout the piece. I never contacted Bill White's campaign about this story — my observations about his campaign are just that, observations. They do not constitute any endorsement of his campaign — by myself or BOR — but they do reveal how, at least in my opinion, he and his campaign are prepared to win a statewide election. Also, you can follow me on Twitter here: @PhillipMartin
“Texas Democrats' First Truly Statewide Campaign of the 21st Century”
With a single press of a key, either a staffer or a volunteer for the Bill White for Texas campaign ushered Texas Democrats into the new era of internet organization. His campaign has walked across the bridge that so many people spent so many years building. I'm not sure who pressed that key, and I can't guarantee why they did it. But I can say two things for certain:
(1) I'm glad it finally happened, and
(2) Not knowing who finally crossed the bridge is what makes it so wonderful.
I will get to the story of what specifically this person on the Bill White for Texas campaign did towards the end of this post. The short version of what they've done, however, may (if I'm right) be quite a story:
A Democrat running a statewide campaign in Texas has, for the first time, fully adapted to the tools and principles of online organization, therefore making it possible to run Texas Democrats' first truly statewide campaign of the 21st century.
I need to unpack that a lot more to back up such a claim, I know. That's why this post is as long (~4,400 words) as it is.
I started writing this as just a short couple of paragraphs on a simple change in the campaign's Twitter usage. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to think it was the sign of something bigger — that it was the sign of Texas Democrats' finally catching up, after years and years of playing from behind. But to take you from here to there, it is going to take more than just a few paragraphs.
Here it goes…
The Importance of Online Organization: Strengthening Networks
Let's not kid ourselves — Texas Democrats were always going to take a little longer than the rest of the country to adapt to the 21st century technologies of internet organization. There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious is simple: it is hard to adapt to a new tool in politics if there is a mindset that money should only be spent on the old ones.
Unless or until, of course, a candidate and/or campaign is willing to make the case for the tool's importance.
The challenge with internet organization — whether it is in politics, business, or culture — is strengthening the value of the “nodes” of the network. Like any other bold and disruptive idea, internet organization is an adaptation, not an adjustment. You can't go to the Campaign Dollar store and slap an “I Love Bloggers” bumper sticker on the campaign bus and call yourself an internet campaign. Adaptation requires fundamental changes in structure. Due to these threats of change, it was very hard for the concept of “internet organization” to make its way off the hooks of Texas Democrats' political toolbelt.
Which is odd, especially if you believe (like I do) that social networking sites are as ubiquitous and important to the culture of Texans as shopping malls. I mean, given the growth in suburban counties that has benefited Texas Democrats in recent years, don't we want to be at the mall? I mean — if that's where everyone else is, don't we want at least a presence there?
The following is an excerpt on the importance of the social networking as a mall question from an article posted at Wired's Epicenter blog, titled, subtly enough, “Are Social Networks Like a Mall?”:
“Social networks are kind of like what the mall used to be on a Friday night,” said Alicia Yaffe of Rocket Science (which functions much like a traditional record label, except that it lets artists keep the rights to their recordings). “You go, you hang out with your friends, you may not have any intention to buy anything — you’ll still go into the retailers, you’ll still try on the clothes, maybe you’ll meet in the food court and sit around and discuss for a little while, and then go home. Later in the week, you’ll come back and buy more. It’s a way to communicate with your friends through brands, through products, and potential purchases that may not be immediate, but the foundation is set when you have that platform to go and hang out with the option to buy.”
Source: “Are Social Networks Like a Mall?” June 9, 2009.
The importance of embracing internet organization through innovative social media tools is clearly key to the new models of social networking and cultural exchange. Yet, given this truth, why haven't any Texas Democrats' statewide campaigns embraced them or any other powerful form of internet organization?
The reason won't surprise you, but it may upset you: the tried and true methods of citizen engagement are the only ones that attract the donors — and the dollars that follow — for the kinds of fledgling statewide campaigns Texas Democrats have run throughout the decade. Launching a website, creating an ActBlue account, building an e-mail list — these are campaign tactics and strategies that, even if a campaign was ultimately convinced were important, have repeatedly appeared nine or ten slots down on the proverbial “to-do” list. Frustrating, but true — though it shouldn't be.
In fact — as the successful campaign of President Barack Obama showed us all — internet organization should be the highest demand of every Democratic candidate right now. The adaptation to new models of networking are essential to a candidate's success. Monte Lutz wrote about this in one of the definitive works on President Barack Obama's online organization, “The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama's Social Media Toolkit.” Among the number of excellent graphs, charts, and models Lutz uses is this basic assessment of the importance of social media:
By combining social media and micro-targeting in the manner that it did, the campaign revealed force multipliers that are already being adopted by advocacy groups pushing their own issue agendas.
Smart businesses will embrace this public engagement model as well, particularly in how they ladder engagement among natural allies such as customers, employees, retirees and suppliers. Otherwise, businesses will be at a significant tactical and strategic disadvantage when their critics and competitors create a groundswell of their own.
Source: “The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama's Social Media Toolkit.” Spring 2009.
The importance of successful internet organization is that it bridges together all the separate fiefdoms of traditional political organization. Successful internet organization contains elements of message, field, and fundraising all at the same time — three distinct and separate dominions that normally fight for attention and funding.
But good internet organization must begin at the earliest stages of a political campaign — it takes time to build, and it ensures that those already engaged online take you seriously. (Ed. Note: Think of the horror that was Tom Schieffer's original website, an error that has now been (thankfully) fixed (sort of), but should never have occurred in the first place).
There's still one major question: Just because it worked for President Obama, why should anyone believe it will work and be just as important for Texas Democrats and their campaigns?
Let's start with the most obvious: it's where the people are.
Who Is Online? Well, Everyone, Really — And They Are Ready to Act
The lack of effective internet organizing in past years has had negative effects on Texas Democrats running for office. By not organizing online properly, most Democratic campaigns have surrendered an obvious potential advantage: talking to fellow Democrats directly! Many activists gather online one way or another, and when we do we expend the energy gathered through our political passions wherever our browsers will take us — blogs, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Why shouldn't those natural energies be harnessed by Texas Democrats?
When you look at the numbers, it becomes even more obvious why Texas Democrats should organize online: In 2008 the Pew Research Center released the report, “Internet Now Major Source of Campaign News” that led with the following summary:
Nearly three times as many people ages 18 to 29 mention the internet as mention newspapers as a main source of election news (49% vs. 17%). Nearly the opposite is true among those over age 50: some 22% rely on the internet for election news while 39% look to newspapers. Compared with 2004, use of the internet for election news has increased across all age groups. Among the youngest cohort (age 18-29), TV has lost significant ground to the internetSource: Pew Research Center report, “Internet Now Majour Source of Campaign News.” October 31, 2008.
And it is not just young people organizing online, either. In addition to the general increase “across all age groups” noted above, adults in the Baby Boom generaltion are joining the online conversation at faster rates than their sons and daughters in the Millennial Generation. A few months ago in March, the blog Inside Facebook ran the following headline:
Meanwhile, Steve Rubel, writing over at Micro Persuasion, recently reported on a study conducted by Consumer Electronics Usage Survey from Accenture that gave strong evidence to the growth of social media among adults :
There's a common misperception out there that all of the blogging, Twittering and Facebooking is being done by twenty and thirty-somethings. That, in fact, turns out not to be true. Baby Boomers (those born 1946-1964) are the fastest growing users of social networking sites and are also increasingly reading blogs too. Meanwhile, Gen Y interest in these services has plateaued.
Source: “Social Networking Demographics: Boomers Jump In, Gen Y Plateaus.” March 23, 2009.
Communicating with more people — when done right — will inevitably increase the size of your audience. Moreover, as BOR Editor-in-Chief Matt Glazer told Josh Berthume in the recently released Texas Observer piece, “The Twittering Class,” there is a certain amount of outreach to the Democratic base that can be done much more easily — and with less money — if the proper social media tools are utilized correctly:
Social media “tools serve one fundamental purpose,” says Matt Glazer, a Democratic campaign consultant and editor-in-chief of the Burnt Orange Report blog, “and that is evangelizing people that already support you. … It can turn casual supporters into informed supporters, and an informed supporter is evangelized: They go to events, they get more involved.”
Source: “The Twittering Class.” June 12, 2009.
And yet, despite the proof that more and more citizens are engaging online, I never really felt (until recently) like Texas Democrats were there to meet any of us. A few individual campaigns had successes, but just like the statewide campaigns that never won any race, no real level of internet organization ever fully came together at once.
That doesn't mean people haven't been trying to make it work, though.
The Volunteers, Acivists, & Campaigns That Built Texas' Bridge to the Internet
In the absence of an organization able to serve as a teaching center for internet organization, who fills the void? Who is the leader in the discussion of how the internet is a political tool, and who is demonstrating, experimenting, and discussiong how it works, so that others can understand?
To some extent, some of the clearest successes for Democrats of internet organization have come from the Texas Democratic Party itself. TDP Chair Boyd Richie has overseen the slow adapation of the state party to the world of online politics. The following was from my report on the TDP's progress on expanding internet organization efforts just before the State Convention last summer:
- Doubled 1st quarter fundraising from 2006 to 2008 (from $303k in 2006 to over $623k in 2008), which includes $100,000 raised exclusively online.
- An e-mail list that has surpassed 289,000 names as of mid-April.
- Field, communications, and grassroots success that has led to more Democrats in the Texas House, more Democrats in Congress, a sweep of Dallas County, and more.
The TDP continues to take great strides — but they had to start from scratch (and I mean absolute Point Zero) just five years ago. That they have come so far in the last half of this decade is nothing short of remarkable. However, as we prepare to start the next decade, the TDP must urgently grow its online presence at a much greater rate — and teach fellow Democrats (activists and candidates alike) how to organize online for themselves.
Lacking a true statewide organization to lead the way, much of the work to organize Texas Democrats online has come from passionate people volunteering a lot of free time. The following efforts constitute the “highlights” of Texas Democrats, to date, to organize online.
The sum of the following paragraphs is simple: a lot got done with little to nothing, and a lot more could get done with just a little more.
- The Richard Morrison for Congress campaign. Way back in 2004, Nate Wilcox really helped get the ball rolling in Texas. Nate is the co-Author of Netroots Rising, the book that tells the story of the national netroots movement. The website for the book discusses the work Wilcox did on Morrison's campaign:
In 2004 he ran Richard Morrison’s historic challenge to Tom DeLay which was the first congressional campaign to raise more than $500,000 online and was the first campaign endorsed by DailyKos.com and Democracy for America. Morrison’s unexpectedly stiff challenge to DeLay helped precipitate the downfall of the powerful majority leader in 2005/2006.
Unfortunately, Morrison's race, though local in nature and clearly a success story, was not duplicated for over four years. That's right — four years. It would take that long for Democrats to run another race that came close to harnessing the early internet power that Morrison accomplished in 2004 — but in the mean time, some feisty volunteers did all they could to fill the void.
- The Texas Progressive Alliance (TPA) — of which Burnt Orange Report (BOR) is a proud member — remains one of the best (and definitely the largest) state-level blogospheres in the country. TPA is highly effective at moving messages across the vast state of Texas, and all individuals within the group have achieved meaningful work at shifting the focus of various policy issues and political campaigns in Texas.
But bloggers aren't candidates, and the TPA doesn't run a campaign. Even if blogging is one of our favorite things to do, it is not — at least for now — a sustainable business practice. For the time being, blogging is the best understood — and still dominatnt — social media tool out there.
- The Rick Noriega for U.S. Senate Campaign — of which BOR supported and for which our own publisher, Karl-Thomas Musselman, worked for as Online Campaign Coordinator — brought Texas Democrats to the internet. By the time all was said and done, Rick Noriega raised over $1.5 million online — which, to this day, is the most any non-Presidential candidate has raised through ActBlue. The Noriega campaign held online chats. They posted YouTube videos. Heck, the whole Noriega race began with the Draft Noriega movement — efforts that were directly championed by many (though not all) Texas bloggers across the state.
Yet…Texas Democrats were still behind. Virginia had completed successful draft movements years before us, and Noriega's internet organization ended up as a small bright spot for a campaign that could never quite get over the hump of running a serious statewide race. Suffering from a lack of non-internet campaign funds and without a consistent campaign staff to maintain a clear purpose, Noriega's team was unable to do much more than wade out into the deep blue sea of internet organization.
- TexBlog PAC — however — did well for itself in 2008, though on a purposefully non-statewide level. Ran entirely by volunteers, the PAC raised over $65,000 for five local State House races across the state. (Ed. Note: Here is the full list of TexBlog PAC Board Members, which includes the three writers of the BOR editorial staff — myself, KT, and Texas Social Media award winner, Matt Glazer, who is also the de-facto leader of the PAC).
Four of TexBlog PAC's five endorsed candidates won election to the Texas House, and each one (Rep. Diana Maldonado, Rep. Chris Turner, Rep. Robert Miklos, and Rep. Joe Moody) was given a Freshmen of the Year award from their colleagues in the House. While TexBlog PAC brought together previously successful efforts and strategies of online organization, it was primarily a fundraising vehicle and (by design) was never extrapolated to pursue any state-level campaign. That could very well change this election cycle (which you will surely be hearing about in the coming months), but the PAC was just getting started in 2008, and was not the full-fledged online organization machine the state so desparately needed.
For the past five years, Texas Democrats have been behind the curve of internet organization. Because we've been behind, we've failed to adapt to the new network systems of the 21st century. As such, our fundraising, field, and messaging capacities have never been fully realized at the statewide level.
This reality has left me wondering — what will happen this election cycle?
Will Texas Democrats fall just short of statewide success, both electorally and (on a smaller scale) in their internet organization and outreach efforts? Or is there reason to believe that this cycle will be different? Is there reason to believe that Texas voters and activists — including those who were already online and the thousands upon thousands of Texas voters constantly joining the internet discussion — will finally find a way to connect with statewide candidates through internet-based organization?
The Bill White for Texas campaign may have just answered that question.
Can Texas Democrats' First Internet-Based Campaign Send Bill White to Washington?
If you've read this far — or just skipped to the colorful chart — then you've waited long enough. Here is what convinced me that Bill White is running Texas' first truly statewide campaign of the 21st century — a campaign that is successfully built around the platforms and principles of internet organization:
|Comparing Texas Statewide Candidates' Use of Social Media Tools*|
|Candidate|| Facebook Suporters
|| Twitter Followers
|| Link to Website
|Kay Bailey Hutchison||4,850||604**||@TeamKay
*All numbers recorded the morning of June 16, 2009.
(Ed. Note: My thanks to the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe and the post he did last week, “Candidates and Twitter” — which got me thinking about making this chart in the first place).
Bill White is succeeding above and beyond his Senate counterpart, John Sharp, and is performing nearly as well as Texas Governor Rick Perry (who, as Josh Berthume discussed in the Texas Observer piece I've previously referenced, “The Twittering Class,” remains the state's most pro-active Tweet-head).
What's important to remember about Twitter — and all social media and internet organization — is not so much the quantity as the quality of conversations that are being had, as well as the people involved in the conversation. Twitter updates have the power to improve a candidate's narrative — which is the inarguably most important aspect of any close campaign — as Berthume wrote in, “The Twittering Class“:
“Politics used to be peer-based,” says J.D. Angle, a Fort Worth-based political consultant. “Radio and TV made politics top-down and centralized. Social and new media are gradually returning it to a peer-based state.”
Where most statements by politicians have historically been carefully regulated for risk-mitigation, the personal Twitter update is the high-tech equivalent of seeing an elected official at a bar and hearing him or her say whatever comes to mind.
Source: “The Twittering Class.” June 12, 2009.
Last Friday, the Bill White for Texas campaign finally figured out how to balance two of the dualing purposes of Twitter. On the one hand, Twitter is great for connecting to a candidate personally, and learning more about his or her narrative. On the other hand, Twitter can be a powerful political tool that can help campaigns move information about the technical aspects of the cammpaign.
- Campaign Twitter Account (maintained by the staff): @TX4BillWhite
- Candidate Twitter Account (maintained by Bil White): @billwhiteforTX
Here was the tweet that made me realize he was ready — from Bill White's campaign account, at 10:26am last Saturday, June 13th:
With candidate @billwhitefortx headed to Lufkin…we'll have several supporters tweeting from this texans for bill account thru the year
And just twenty-three minutes later, from the candidate himself:
Long lines for pancakes in Nacogdoches.
For the rest of the day, and through the time I was researching and writing this post yesterday, the activity on the campaign account has increased dramatically, and Bill White has continued to send more personal, “check-in” type comments on his account.
Here's the importance of this seeminly innocuous development: if the campaign account handles the spin, the reminders, and the day-to-day “official business” of the campaign (which is how it is supposed to work in offline politics), then the candidate can just focus on being honest and talking to people (which is also how it is supposed to work in offline politics). Each account has its own purpose and, more importantly, we — “we” being the audience that follows, and could begin to follow, Bill White and his campaign on Twitter — can engage directly with the candidate, or through the different staffers on the campaign.
In either instance, we are part of a conversation — a conversation Bill White was already having successfully across the state of Texas, outside of any internet organization. Now, however, he can connect quickly across the vast state of Texas with his supporters — so if, down the line, he needs to raise a small bit of cash or quickly respond to an attack, he can empower his supporters with information directly. He can, as Matt put it, “evangelize” to his supporters in a way he couldn't before.
The importance of social networking cannot be overstated. Last week Senate Guru, guest-posting here at BOR, wrote a post titled, “Social Networking with the 2009 Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates.” His post concludes with links to each candidates' social networking sites. Thanks to this post, I know about the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, and (once I have a job and have money again) will probably send some money their way.
This is only happening because someone, through a social media platform I trust, has stirred me from my Democratic activist state to my “take action!” state — something that is solely possible due to internet organization. The “evangilization” — as Matt Glazer would call it — works.
Bill White can now begin the same conversation, too — he can connect with voters directly and demystify and defy conventional wisdom that negatively affects his campaign. Imagine how well he can undercut the perceptions that he is boring — a serious hurdle that Chris Bell only cleared at the end, and that Rick Noriega never really got close to — almost exclusively by posting enjoyable updates from the campaign trail on Twitter. If Bill White and his campaign can convince hundreds of hardcore activists that he is trustworthy and will absolutely run a strong campaign to win, then who knows how many of their friends they'll talk to.
Now, not everyone they talk to is going to write a 4,000 word blog post, sure — but they will have a conversation. Some will give money, some may decide to volunteer their time, and others may decide to endorse him. Some may do nothing. But all of it will be done at little to no cost to the campaign — and it will all be possible because of the potential of internet organization to transform Texas politics.
Will we witness a transformation that elects Texas' first Democratic statewide elected official in fourteen years? Only time will tell.
But one conversation at a time, Texas Democrats can tell each other that this election cycle will be different — and have something to prove it other than spin. We have the words of the campaign themselves, and we have the chance to ask questions directly to the candidate and the campaign. Most importantly, we can decide ourselves if we trust the candidate — and don't have to rely on the filter of political consultants, newspaper editors, or politically motivated bloggers to connect us to the sources of power.
We can cross that bridge by ourselves, now — and maybe then, we can start to (finally) believe that we are more than just ready to run a statewide campaign in Texas — we're ready to win one, too.
Now we just have to go get it done.