First I’ll just go ahead an apologize to the legions on Internet Ron Paul fans… I know you’re great at organizing, spreading the word, jamming up polls, and generally making name for your candidate, but your man isn’t going to win – heck he’s not even going to place or show… It’s a sad fact of political life, but all the online cheering and rallying in the world doesn’t translate to registered voters going to polls; just ask the NetRoots. Given the libertarian bent of Paul support it’s a good bet that a lot of his support comes from people who have never cast a vote in a Republican primary and may not be sure how to do so if they somehow get motivated to get out of the house on primary day.
The Paul campaign is every bit as notorious (and noteworthy) as Howard Dean’s failed 2004 run even if he’s nowhere near as popular as Dean was among the techno-savy at this point in the campaign. The Ron Paul campaign – or more accurately Paul supporters – are the first grassroot success on the Republican side of the ledger and whichever candidate ultimately prevails will be inflicting what, if history is any guide, may well be a fatal blow if they fail to truly come to grips with some of the successes he’s had.
Peter Daou, one of the stalwarts of the left side of the blogosphere (and currently working for the Clinton campaign) noted some of the real problems that the Kerry campaign had “internalizing” the rise of the Internet as an organization tool:
My challenge was to bring the energy, ideas, and attitude of the netroots into the heart of the campaign, and provide tools, information and support to the online community. I ran into two big obstacles, one of which was the tremendous amount of money being raised online. Not surprisingly, the Internet was perceived as a source of cash, not as a research or communications tool. I joined the campaign motivated by the prospect of hundreds of thousands of ready and able online activists working together to probe every angle of an issue, explore every line of an argument, act as a massive oppo research team and real-time focus group, carrying a unified and disciplined message online and offline. This was an untapped resource that hadn’t existed in previous presidential elections and I hoped the campaign would harness it, but the prodigious fundraising capabilities of the Internet sucked up all the online oxygen.
The second obstacle, and the more serious one, was the unwillingness of Democratic strategists to heed BC04 campaign manager Ken Mehlman’s prediction that the party that dominated the Internet would win the election. I had faith in the collective wisdom of the netroots – I believed that if the Kerry campaign truly internalized the confrontational disposition of the netroots, Kerry would win, just as I knew that if Bush channeled the fire of the rightwing blogs, Kerry could lose. And I made my case as forcefully as I could. Many in the campaign understood the new political reality, including John Kerry himself, who was very attentive to what bloggers were saying. But the natural antagonism of the old guard toward the new was an institutional problem and the marginalization of the netroots as a communications force, as well as the hyper-focus on Internet fundraising, hindered the online-offline alliance.
While the Ron Paul campaign is bound to be a historical footnote in Republican party history, the success they’ve had in organizing, campaigning, reaching new voters, and fundraising via the Internet is one that the front-runners (and eventual nominee) need to be studying. They Kerry campaign illustrated that if you just focus on the money you’re looking in the wrong place…