Frontrunners or Insurgents?

“This is the most important legacy of Howard Dean’s campaign for president.  From this point on, there will be a new special interest group to reckon with – the American people.  And this special interest group has a tool – the Internet..Now politics are no longer the domain of that one-quarter of 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans who give 80 percent of individual political donations….Now the power is back in our hands.”  Joe Trippi

 

Trippi sees the Internet as the “empowerment age,” shifting power from top-down institutions to a “power that is democratically distributed and shared by all of us.”

Such a populist approach to the power of the Internet comes from a man who saw his insurgent candidate fly with the Internet and then, ultimately, fall to the traditional media and political power structure when they had a presence in 2004. I think Trippi would argue the Internet is a tool for insurgent candidates – a tool that, because of its open and chaotic nature, does not adapt to frontrunner, top-down campaigns.

 

I agree that through the 2008 election, the Internet was largely a tool of insurgent candidates.  I disagree, however, that the Internet intrinsically favors dark horse insurgents. That might have been true in 1996, 2000 and into 2004 when the Internet was still largely being explored by the masses for social connections and adapted by campaigns for political use.  Since then, the Internet has gone mainstream and Moore’s Law tells us it is advancing at such a pace that the candidate who can’t master it won’t even be a candidate.

 

Ironically, it was two insurgent candidacies, the Dean campaign in 2004 and Obama’s campaign in 2008 that, I believe, opened the Internet to frontrunners.  Dean’s campaign, led by Trippi, rocked the political world and the young minds involved spread like ripples throughout the 2008 campaign.  In that election, Obama was the insurgent candidate and he won, using tools largely built on from Dean’s campaign.  Whoever did not see the power of the Internet in 2004 (ahem, Mark Penn, see Trippi p. 249) awoke to it in 2008.  Obama succeeded to such a degree that no candidate will make the mistake of Hillary Clinton in surrounding themselves with “old minds.”

 

Insurgent candidates use the Internet effectively out of necessity.   The Internet gives such candidates a voice and means to compete, but it is not something limited to their use.  Every candidate can use the Internet to reach folks like Lou Stark, the 89-year old who was motivated to join the Dean campaign.  And every candidate can use tools like blogs, MeetUp and Get Local that were created in 2004 and enhanced in 2008 to reach voters.

 

What sets candidates apart is their message.  Trippi writes, “Every other candidate has started by saying – Look at me.  Aren’t I amazing?  But every time Howard Dean got up to speak, every time his campaign staff got on the web to blog, the message was Look at you.  Aren’t you amazing?  Obama followed the same model in 2008 and that is what fueled his campaign and drove his success.  Online and off, it was “you” and “us,” not “I.”  This is the tool that matters.

 

As Trippi says, the Internet is able to give voice to the silent, influence to the average and power to the powerless.  It will always be a tool for insurgents, but by 2012 and beyond it will be mainstream to the degree it must, and will, be the tool of the frontrunner.

 

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