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Grassroots vs Grassrootsy: How to Parse Technology's Role in Politics

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, July 18 2011

Ever since John McCain's upset win of the New Hampshire presidential primary in February 2000, when during his live televised victory speech he mentioned his website, unleashing a flood of online donations--more than $1 million in 48 hours and more than $2 million in one week--political campaigns and the journalists who cover them have been entranced by the relationship between the Internet and grassroots politics. This made sense in McCain's case: nearly one half of the people who donated to him in that dizzying week were first-time donors to the campaign, and according to Becky Donatelli, one of McCain's strategists, their gifts averaged under $100. "The deluge was so large that our servers could not handle the load and no one in the campaign was allowed to 'run reports' for days because it added stress to the servers!!" she told me a few years ago.* Even if some of the money that poured in to McCain post-NH was actually a result of a simultaneous direct mail push, the press amplified the story and the legend of online fundraising was born.

According to that legend, money given online is somehow more grassroots, more organic, than money given in response to a direct mail piece or a personal invitation. A further extension in our present age of social media is that participation exhibited online is itself more organic and genuine. This is a seductive claim, after all, online activity is often a barometer of interests that people pursue on their own, rather than something they do because of marketing. The web makes it easy for people to find what they're looking for, and a donate or "share" button makes it easy to give or spread something on an impulse. No need to find your checkbook, lick an envelope or dig up a stamp and go to a mail box. (Sure, these appear to be "weaker" ties, Malcolm Gladwell, but the numbers add up impressively and self-organized acts of political expression, even the small ones, often lead up a ladder of engagement to bigger and bigger commitments.)

In addition, the history of online politics in America is peppered with examples of grassroots surges for candidates that were, for the most part, bottom up: Howard Dean's Meetups in early 2003, Barack Obama on MySpace and Facebook in early 2007, Ron Paul with his fall 2007 "money bombs," Scott Brown's fast-paced rise in the Massachusetts Senate race in January 2010. So, for good reason, those of us who are interested in which way the political winds are blowing pay close attention to online trends and make special note of the ones that appear to involve large numbers of people, reasoning that it is harder to get a mass of people to move online unless they genuinely want to.

But for a whole bunch of reasons, we should be on guard against claims that money given online, as well as tallies of small donations versus large donors, or other newer metrics of public participation like Twitter retweets or YouTube views, prove definitively that a campaign is more "grassroots" or "owned by ordinary people" etc. Such signs offer hints, nothing more. If anything, campaigns often want to encourage the appearance of being "grassroots" while obscuring where the real money and power resides. The political media needs to be skeptical have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach; too often what is said to be "grassroots" would be better described as "grassrootsiness." Here's why:

  • First, it's impossible to separate online and offline political activity (as if that separation ever made much sense). Let's say a person receives a fundraising letter in the mail, or goes to a campaign event, and then donates via the campaign's website: should that be counted as an internet-driven contribution? The fact is there's no way to tell the difference. Technology makes participation easier, but just because something appears to be happening online, we shouldn't assume that means its more grassroots.
  • Second, averages hide the real power curve. As I pointed out last week about the fudges in Obama's second quarter fundraising, while an average donation of $69 looks impressively low, a focus on that number alone hides the influence of the much smaller group of fatcat donors whose ability to max out early matter a great deal to a campaign.
  • Third, while small donations are certainly the "cleanest" kind of money a campaign can raise, in the sense that no one can seriously argue that a $69 contribution buys influence or has the potential to corrupt the recipient, for that same reason small donors also, collectively, have very little power inside the campaign they are supporting. In that respect, until small donors learn to not only aggregate their contributions but also speak together, the way large donors often do, they will continue to be the suckers of American presidential politics: used and abused by campaign operatives who take their money, whisper promises of "you own this campaign" in their thank-you emails, and screwed by politicians who realize that these donors have no way to enforce their desires. (In that respect, what the PCCC is doing here is just a start.)
  • Given that many campaigns and organizations now have large email lists of their own, we also have to recognize the difference between mass participation that is driven from the top versus from below. Indeed, Obama 2012 digital strategy director Joe Rospars memorably said, at the PdF Europe conference in 2010, that "The bottom up stuff needs to be enforced from the top down." And this year, campaigns like Obama's and to a lesser degree Mitt Romney's and Ron Paul's present special interpretive challenges, because they aren't starting from scratch but building on top of an existing base of participants and data that they have carried over from 2008. Thus, what the campaigns may spin as grassroots because the participation numbers are high (550,000 individual donors to Obama so far, more than triple what they had at this point four years ago) need to be weighed in context (what happened to the full 4 million who gave in 2008?).

What then should we do with the deluge of data coming out of the emerging 2012 presidential race? We need a journalism that parses the grassroots from the grassrootsiness. For starters, let me offer this simple chart as a reminder that big numbers of participants doesn't equal grassroots. In my humble opinion, the more a campaign is led from the top, the more grassrootsy it is--regardless of how many participants it claims. Likewise, the more it is led from below, the more grassroots. Let's use the terms to help distinguish.

Fortunately, there's plenty of journalists and analysts who know how the numbers game works in terms of money in politics. See, for example, see Nicholas Confessore's astute reading of Obama 2012's recent campaign filing:

Mr. Obama’s election filings suggest that the president’s grassroots machinery is being financed by a relatively small group of big-ticket donors. The largest individual checks Mr. Obama raised — up to $30,800 per donor — went to a joint account with the Democratic National Committee, which can accept contributions far in excess of the $5,000 Mr. Obama may accept from any individual person over the course of his campaign.
Those large checks fueled a $38 million haul that Democrats are using to open field offices. Less than 2 percent of that total came from checks of less than $200, according to Mr. Obama’s campaign filings.

Or take the Center for Responsive Politics OpenSecrets blog, which parsed Obama's $46 million campaign haul and estimated that 47% of that came in funds under $200, the proverbial small donor threshold below which the FEC does not require detailed individual reporting.

But while these analyses are helpful, we need to go further. How shall we evaluate Obama's efforts on Twitter? He's got more than a million followers, but what then should we make of the fact that after Rospars called for Obama supporters to tweet their reasons for giving using the hashtag #550K, so far only a few have done so? Or what should we make of the fact that Jim Messina's campaign fundraising report video has garnered 67,000 views on YouTube? That's a solid number, but against the 8.8 million who watched his performance at the recent White House correspondents dinner, it's paltry. What should we make of factoids like this one from ABC's "The Note," which seems to think that "weekly percentage growth" of a candidate's Twitter followers is somehow a meaningful metric? Really? So if a candidate gains followers because he's self-destructing and more fun to watch (c.f. Newt Gingrich), his weekly percentage growth stat means what exactly?

Here at techPresident, we're going to keep watching these numbers and working to help put them into context, as we have since we started this news site in 2007. And we freely admit that there's no definitive answer to this question: how grassroots is internet-powered politics? But the starting point for this cycle is to also admit, a lot of it is just grassrootsy.

[*For more great background on the McCain 2000 campaign online, check out James Tomlinson's essay "Organizing an Online Campaign: The Legacy of" in The Millennium Election.]