Blog Topic 6: A World in Which Florida Decides

In Uncategorized on October 26, 2010 at 5:00 pm


On particular passage in Garrett’s book stuck with me as I read, and largely informs my feelings as they relate to politics and the power of the internet:

As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg told the Post, the parties were “so evenly matched at the moment that all the incentives are to be careful.” It wasn’t that there weren’t big ideas out there to debate, but Clinton’s programmatic successes and the recent political fascination with invented electoral subgroups like “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” had narrowed the political worldview. “We have tactical elections, we don’t have big elections, because there’s every prospect that you can win by thinking small,” Greenberg said. “There’s a temptation to find one small group that gets you a couple of extra percentage points, rather than thinking grander.

As students of public relations, I think all of us can recognize the inherent truth in these words. For some of us, segmentation is a welcome trend, and an exciting one. It allows us to stop wasting our time and money trying to target a blanket audience in which only 10 percent of listeners are actually receptive to our message. And, as Greenberg points out, it allows politicians to isolate the small groups of people who are most likely to radically alter the outcome of elections – groups that don’t vote but could be motivated to quite easily and with little cost, segments of the populace whose overwhelming interest in knitting pink socks is found to correlate with a strong antipathy towards abortion and therefore indicates an opportunity for conservatives, people who trick-or-treat into their forties that turn out to be an untapped (and cavity-ridden) subgenus of rabid liberal thought.

So what’s the problem? As a self-proclaimed liberal-leaning pragmatist, why should I care what group is discovered to be the key to Democratic success in any given election? Why should I be concerned with campaigns’ new-found ability to locate and maximize the lifeblood of these groups via online tools? I find this new ability to isolate and mobilize untapped, previously loosely-defined support groups and online opinion leaders concerning for one reason: It gives politicians and their campaign leaders reason to ignore broad swaths of the voting populace whose votes are already all-but ensured and instead focus attentions on microcosmic groups whose support may be largely predicated on only a few issues, issues that perhaps should not be of primary focus. I fear that the pendulum is now mid-swing between the former land of ineffectual blanket campaigning that was too broad, emotional, and vague to truly appeal to any one person meaningfully and a new world in which campaign messages are razor-sharp and effectual, but targeted only to those groups deemed to be game-changers, be they pink sock knitters or acrobatic circus performers of Russian heritage. In this new world, politicians and their web teams will spend ever-increasing amounts of time and energy trying to figure out which groups are the Floridas of any given election — that is, which (potentially poorly-motivated or poorly-informed) self-identifying groups will be the key that unlocks the door to an oval room or a plush seat.

Okay, story time!

If you’re from Oklahoma, you can go to Disney World on vacation, but you’re not getting the Florida Residents’ All-Access Discount Pass. Nobody is going to care if your floating log got stuck at the top of Splash Mountain and you suffered tachycardia as a result but can’t afford medical care because you just spent the last cent of your unemployment check on one last family vacation. No one is going to care that you can’t afford to send your kids to Mickey’s Acting School because the tuition is obscene. No one is going to care that you think there should be a stuffed animal in the gift shop that costs less than $40. That is, no one is going to care until you move to Florida, take up pink-sock knitting, and transform yourself into a crucial portion of the anti-abortion demographic Republicans are counting on to lock-in the 2040 election.

The end.

I exaggerate, of course, for effect. The point being, in this new world of targeted online campaign appeals, a lot of groups whose concerns and interests are both legitimate and crucial may end up being ignored by politicians looking only for a golden ticket into the chocolate factory. And Democrats will be no less guilty of this than Republicans (in fact, if Garrett’s citation of their early internet dexterity is any indication, they may indeed be more guilty). And maybe, if it wins an election and your party is back in power, you don’t care how they get there.

This past week, I was struck by something I read in a New York Times article about Democrats distancing themselves from, and even blatantly expressing hostility towards, Nancy Pelosi in order to garner the votes of their heavily anti-Pelosi districts. Pelosi’s response? “I just want them to win. They know their districts.” Epochal humility, isn’t it? And perhaps that’s how I should feel towards targeted campaign marketing. But I don’t.

Because I don’t want to live in a nation in which the Floridas of the world become the power brokers. Nor do I want to vote for politicians whose efforts to identify potentially obscure key election constituencies and ignore those whose support they take for granted (and who value big-picture issues) is rewarded with a seat in the House. The beauty of the internet lies in all those things Garrett points out in his book: the new-found power of average citizens to have their voices heard across a country and in the once-impregnable halls of power that they have never seen firsthand, the competition posed to the mainstream (and often soft-shoed) press by more tenacious and inquisitive citizen journalists and bloggers and the resulting improvements to the democratic environment it offers, and the inability of candidates to continue to get away with being one person in front of the cameras and a horse of a different color backstage. There is no more off-camera, and off-the-record will be the next to go. And this is all well and good, or at the very least bearable. But I fear that this new world of democratic dialogue will quickly devolve into a land in which there are so many power brokers and opportunities for Madison Avenue-inspired segmentation that the webroots will become both shallow and crowded-out by mutations of their original species.


As for Barack Obama, I exude little passion for what many see as a revolutionary campaign that broke ground by harnessing the potential inherent in internet campaigning and fundraising. Did Obama raise gobs of cash via a proliferation of small online donations? Yes. Is this inspiring? Yes. Is it cause for hope that the smaller voices of average people can be organized online to accomplish something spectacular? Yes. Yes, yes, yes to all of these things. I do not discount any of it. But I also do not fail to recognize that much of this originated not within his campaign, but within the passionate and enterprising minds of those who truly believed in Obama as a candidate on a very human level. Look at the young men who created the Myspace and Facebook pages in support of Obama’s candidacy. David Ploufe didn’t call them and ask them to do so. They did it because they were inspired by a hope and an idea that the country could travel along a different path that the one it has been moored to previously. And one of them was not at all rewarded for his efforts. I wonder if Joe Anthony ended up voting for Hillary.

This bottom-up online phenomenon certainly benefited the Obama campaign, and even if they themselves didn’t originate all of the online efforts that so aided their victory, they were quite savvy in harnessing and embracing them. In all fairness, they did have models (the Dean campaign, McCain’s online fundraising efforts) to look to for inspiration. But to give credit where credit is due, Obama did break more ground on the new era of web campaigning than had been broken previously. The fact that he was the first major-party presidential candidate to turn down public financing since the system was created in 1976 is reflective of his early confidence in his ability to gain significant traction amongst donors online.

So what was Obama’s promise, bargain, and tool? I suspect that every person will come up with radically different answers to this question reflective of their own opinions and passions regarding the 2008 campaign. For instance, I was a Hillary supporter right up to the end of the possibility of Hillary. Therefore it would be easy for me to view Obama’s pledge, bargain, and tool as 1) carrying forward Hillary’s fervor for universal health care and education, 2) voting for him and in return having my own interests as a former Hillary supporter considered with equal seriousness as long-time Obama supporters, and 3) using both Hillary herself and online media as a tool to appeal to my inherent liberal-leaning nature and convince me that just because Hillary was out did not mean that I was.

In a more general sense, however, I view Obama’s promise to have revolved largely around his broadly supported desire to wrench the political mechanism from the entrenched Washington elites who had controlled it for so long, and instead place it in the hands of the ordinary Americans for whom the mechanism was supposed to be working in the first place. Obama’s bargain was two-fold – in order for us, the people, to benefit from such a change in standard Washington practice, we would have to both vote for Obama and contribute personally to efforts towards this change (One of my favorite quotes to have ever left Obama’s lips was, “We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”).  His tools were various – using social media and online expertise to rally young voters and harnessing and organizing the online power of those who had taken it upon themselves to independently create their own disparate pro-Obama sites and groups were both of paramount importance. However, so were his grassroots efforts to reach minority populations, particularly African Americans who had not previously participated in elections due to feelings of disenfranchisement. Furthermore, Obama’s sage maximization of celebrity supporters like Oprah and the Kennedy family were very important tools. And this list is by no means exhaustive.

Did Obama come through on his promise, bargain, and tool? I don’t know. I am not willing to pass judgment one way or another at this point. Yes, it’s been two years (what some Americans apparently consider enough time to completely fix the diseased system and reverse the worst economic plight in over fifty years). In my opinion, unless you wage a war that is obviously based on an unsubstantiated premise or decide to publish a little red book, two years isn’t enough time for me to pass judgment on you.

In many ways, particularly regarding his desire to change the way Washington works, the President has had the best of intentions. I really do believe he is as frustrated with the political machine as most of us are. But I also think he was either incredibly naïve in his campaign promises or exaggerating for the sake of garnering votes. And after reading Game Change, I think the latter of the two is the more likely scenario. Obama’s years spent in the Senate prior to his presidential bid were more than enough time for him to realize that no one man could overhaul the functionality of the clogged U.S. government.

But the thing that most disappoints me is his lack of tenacity. He spent his first year in office letting both the Republicans and a few impractical staffers set the rules of the game, squandering a period in which he had the best chances to push through strong legislation. He was in charge, he had a majority in both houses, and what did he do? Acted like he didn’t. Easier said than done, I know, but I am disappointed nonetheless. I have always been a fan of Obama’s eloquent and somewhat level-headed presentation style. But he should have known – if you’re going to continue to speak softly, you’re going to need a bigger stick. Or a fire iron.

I do feel that he used the tools of his campaign well and really harnessed an inspiring, collective populist voice to tell the story of his bid for the White House. But somehow, unfortunately, Republicans have hijacked this innocuous populism and have turned it into something that I view as both dangerous and disturbing (and I feel really badly for someone I actually admire greatly — Olympia Snowe). As Paul Krugman pointed out today, “The tragedy here is that if voters do turn on Democrats, they will in effect be voting to make things even worse. The resurgent Republicans have learned nothing from the economic crisis, except that doing everything they can to undermine Mr. Obama is a winning political strategy. Tax cuts and deregulation are still the alpha and omega of their economic vision. And if they take one or both houses of Congress, complete policy paralysis — which will mean, among other things, a cutoff of desperately needed aid to the unemployed and a freeze on further help for state and local government — is a given.”

Obama has done his best to uphold the tenet of “campaigns are conversations” throughout his tenure. He continues to give online addresses, continues to speak to the American people over the airwaves even when it’s not yet time for the State of the Union. But the very revealing quandary of this is that it doesn’t seem to equate to our voices really being heard. People are desperate for jobs. And even with an open-access email address, even with Youtube appearances, the administration doesn’t seem to have felt the direness of this need. Obama’s stimulus, though far better than no action at all, fell short of the level of support truly needed. And while I recognize the truth of the “do what you can with what you have” philosophy (there’s only so much you can do with such an ineffectual government, after all), I am beginning to question how much power this online revolution of millions of voices really has when there seems to be a ceiling to the level of action it can prompt. We may be able to get a candidate into office, but after that, we may find that there isn’t even any room for us to be a mere cog in the machine. The walls of ivory towers are thick indeed, and even if we are occasionally allowed inside, our access and influence is limited by who we know (or don’t know) and what we bring to the table (or the gifts we don’t come bearing).

Maybe Shirky’s philosophy applies here – he said we don’t really care that everybody is coming; we only care that the people we care about are coming. Perhaps government is no different. Campaigns like the internet. Candidates feel its power and figure out how to make it work for them if they are smart. But perhaps they are viewing it from a Madison Avenue window seat. They don’t care that we’re all coming. They only care that they can access an entire contagion of anti-abortion pink sock knitters with two clicks of a mouse and BADA-BING – half a million votes! Cynical? Yes. Unfounded? I don’t think so.

A campaign is not a presidency. And as I think we are finding out, a promise, a bargain, and a tool, even when effective, aren’t enough to save us from the threats to democracy that proliferate at a faster rate than students can graduate from college. Because the bottom line is this: you may like your promise/bargain/tool. It may be brilliant. It may have a base that is one million strong. But someone else has a very different promise/bargain/tool. And theirs may just have hit a million and one.

  1. well thought out and put together, Kate. But don’t we all have the opportunity to “be Floridas” in our own states and communities?

    • Oh, absolutely, Mike! I think we have all been, and will all continue to be, Floridas at various points! I guess that’s kind of the point I was trying to make; while being a “Florida” may not always be a good thing, it certainly imbues us with heightened influence and power when we find ourselves in that position. And I agree — at some point, we all are.

  2. Wow! I think this might hold the record for the longest class blog post ever written. Congratulations!

    So here’s your question, though: As a Hillary supporter, did she have a plausible promise, effective tool, and acceptable bargain? Did hers differ from Obama’s?

    • Oh, my. I know that brevity is not my strongpoint 🙂

      I’ll have to think about the Hillary question. I certainly don’t think her tool was effective, that is for sure. In all fairness, I was too influenced by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book on the subject, and therefore, in retrospect, view Hillary’s campaign as horribly flawed and pompous. But let me think further and come up with a better, more lucid response.

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