Despite the nearly three-fold increase on money spent in the 2004 Presidential election cycle versus the 2000 Presidential election cycle, voter participation only increased from 55.3%
of the voting eligible population to 60.7%
of the voting eligible population. Further, despite the increase in applied resources, fewer people than ever changed their minds during the course of the campaign
. What went wrong? Why did both parties receive such small returns on such enormous investments?
As intense and massive as our voter contact drives were during 2004, and as often as we have discussed their successes and failures of such operations, I am slowly coming to believe that the main reason for the diminishing returns of large political investments is the inability of political campaigns to properly adjust to the way civic engagement itself has changed. Specifically, individual engagement in the public sphere is now driven primarily by small, self-starting, disparate collectives rather than by participation within large, centralized, mass membership, civic organizations. Despite this shift, more often than not we simply apply the new resources we have toward replicating older models of political influence through voter contact structures that no longer match the way individuals connect to the public sphere. The wave of new activists who became interested and engaged in the political process through small, self-starting collectives were turned into old-school representatives of large, centralized organizations contacting voters on behalf of those organizations and delivering a centralized plan and message developed by those organizations. The wave of new money collected form small donors was used to make even larger television ad buys than ever before, even though everyone knows such ad buys are becoming less effective by the day. In other words, we took people we became interested in the political process through the new public sphere and directed them to engage in the very activities that had been so ineffective in reaching them for the past few decades because they were created to meet the realities of a public sphere that no longer exists.
Why were we encouraging people who never swallowed a single political TV ad to donate money to run political TV ads? Why were we encouraging people who never trusted canvassers to become canvassers themselves? The failure of the Perfect Storm in Iowa attests to how ineffective this was. Instead of having the activists new to the process replicate the models of voter contact that did not bring them into the process and even turned them off to the process, shouldn't we have them replicate the models of voter contact that actually brought them into the process?
Any new organizing model for the Democratic Party has to take into account the realities of the changing public sphere in order to be effective. This will require new models of voter contact, and it will require being open source. A very recent paper by Marty Kearnes, who has been working on progressive techno-politics since I was in elementary school, echoes this sentiment:
Option 3 accepts that in future elections people do not organize around membership organizations, wards, churches, political bosses or institutions. Modern day organizing or political advocacy is activated through more loosely connected community listserves, technology wired affinity groups, activity coordinating groups, fan clubs, etc. The challenge to the party is not to bring folks back into outdated civic institutions. The goal is to spread organizing via people into the self-forming associations enabled and sustained by technology.
The party needs to aggressively experiment with alternative channels to reach the public including music, arts, poetry, story telling, cultural events, video games and service work.
The party needs to invest in new technologies to pipe messages out including email, innovative blog networks, websites, online broadcasting, podcast, cell phones, rdif applications for organizing and voice over Internet technologies. The Democrats should develop networks to the communities of innovation to keep the party strategists and trainers knowledgeable of emerging technology and the ways to experiment with new technology in campaign context. The party becomes a vehicle for spreading advantage quickly rather than simply purchasing services from a vendor and leaving it to the vendor to spread innovation.
Our solutions to improving voter contact cannot repeatedly be to replicate what we have done in the past on a larger and more coordinated scale (basically, what we did in 2004). Our current methods of voter contact are not influencing many voters, are not helping us in partisan self-identification, and are not helping us in ideological self-identification. As time goes on, these methods will only become even less effective. As a result of the changes in the public sphere, we need to find new means of voter contact that address our new reality. The only way that is going to happen if the party moves away from mass-membership, institutional based campaigns which do not reflect how people live and participate in political discourse, and toward a much greater focus on campaigns that are driven by individuals who hold influential positions within small social groups. This is neither strategic, choosing one plan over another, nor moral, choosing one value over another. Instead, this is ontological, recognizing that one reality has replaced another. For a detailed proposal on how to proceed in the new reality, I have reproduced Karnes's entire paper in the extended entry.