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The Online Impact of McCain's Decentralized Campaign

BY Patrick Ruffini | Tuesday, March 18 2008

Last week, the McCain campaign announced a break from the BC'04 command-and-control model in the political department. There will be no political director, and instead authority will be devolved to the states and regions:

Sen. John McCain’s election planners are preparing to unveil a radically decentralized campaign structure over the next few months.

Instead of funneling authority through a few central figures at campaign headquarters in Arlington, VA, plans call for it to be dispersed to up to ten “regional campaign managers” –spread at satellite campaign offices throughout the country, according to two Republicans briefed on the plans.


The regional managers would have the authority to hire and fire, to adapt field programs to fit the needs of the states in their region. Unlike regional political directors, they would be part of the senior staff table at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters. Message and media, for the most part, would still be run through Arlington.

The Bush model was the epitome of national control and accountability, with marathon Saturday conference calls and spreadsheets tracking activity with precision down to the county level. With 62 million votes and a 20% increase in the Bush vote since 2000, you can't argue with success.

So why break with the Bush model?

One can argue that they aren't, as this seemingly well-informed Ambinder commenter suggests:

What this really means, is that the RNC will be running the campaign since they will be moving donors to RNC roles. The Regional Political Directors of the RNC will have final control. That is why DuHaime was brought back in and no one was fired from the RNC. On major issues, McCain (Rick Davis) will have final say, especially on message and media. But for door-to-door, let the "old" Bush team, do what they know. Every RNC RPD is part of the Bush model. That is why none of them were let go. It has been normal in the past to have a complete purge and that didn't happen. This isn't decentralization, it allows for better door efforts. Because the problem the RNC had in the past is grassroots in New Hampshire, is a lot different than grassroots in AZ. It will be interesting to see if it works.

Whether this is a genuine move towards regional control and flexibility, or merely a shift back to the historical norm of the RNC/Victory running GOTV, I'd like to raise a few questions about what this means for technology and the McCain campaign.

Technology thrives on standards. This is why Microsoft became dominant on the desktop, VHS beat BetaMax, and Blu-Ray prevailed in a short but bloody war with HD-DVD. Consumers and industry will aggressively seek to crown a de-facto standard before real progress can be made.

What does it mean if there are ten different power centers, and hence, ten different standards? Or, more likely, another campaign running on 2000-era Excel spreadsheets?  

Within the walls and with the limited time constraints of a political campaign, this sorting-out process works by brute force more than organic self-selection. A big reason why we had more online house parties than the Kerry campaign in 2004 was not just that more people on our side wanted to engage in this fashion. It's that each battleground state had a specific goal for the number of house parties, and use of online tools was aggressively pushed in the field. It's doubtful that this would have happened within a federated campaign structure without a political or field director whose sole job was to crack the whip on the basic blocking and tackling of the campaign.

The ideal environment for technology to thrive within a campaign is a common technology standard at the national level that devolves enormous power and responsibility directly to the local field organizer or volunteer. In effect, cutting out the middleman between Crystal City, Ballston, or Chicago, and the field.

This means that the campaign releases a powerful set of online tools that would leave any Tammany-era precinct captain green with envy: house party planners, online walklists, phone banks (both volunteer-to-voter and volunteer-to-supporter), and lists of high-propensity activists near you to help build Rick Warren-esque small group cohesion. One of the more impressive facts from the Bush '04 online field effort is that half of the RSVPs to house parties came not through guests the hosts already knew, but from others on the e-mail list ID'd on the site and automatically sent invitations to the closest party. Over half a million people attended parties.

One layer removed are the internal tools -- the Voter Vaults, the extranets -- which field staff use to create industrial strength walk and phone lists, and to upload and contact lists of offline volunteers.

A decentralized structure likely means that these tools won't be developed significantly by the McCain camp, or will be pushed by the RNC, which has less brand affinity than the Presidential candidate and will not ultimately see the same surge in walk-in donations and signups than had the activity been pushed through While this may not matter to the activist who uses these tools quasi-professionally, it does matter to the casual activist who only gets involved once every four years. Publicly at least, most of the innovation should be happening through, because that is the most efficient cash cow the campaign (or the party) has right now.

Here's a concrete example of how good technology integration could matter -- and why it may help to break down regional silos.

In my candidate trainings, I often retell the impressive story of Democratic Texas State Rep. Mark Strama, who moderated my panel at SXSW last year. Strama built his e-mail list the old fashioned way. He went door to door, and personally asked people for their e-mails. Not only was he able to get thousands of e-mails this way, but he was able to calculate that each of these individual addresses was worth $10 in online fundraising, not counting their volunteer activity, their vote, or the personal touch by the candidate. He used this to raise in six figures online for a state legislative race.

If the average is $10 for a low-involvement state rep. race, imagine what it is in a Presidential race, particularly if you get started early?  

Having a robust e-mail collection effort in the field is paramount. Everyone who attends a McCain rally should be asked to sign a supporter card that includes e-mail (and of course, offline info, but e-mail is the most efficient, low-cost mode of communication). Everyone on the other side of a door knock should be asked to give the same. Ditto for volunteer phone calls. And there should be a common technology platform for entering this information so that it instantly available to everyone from the person hitting send on the national fundraising and communications emails in Arlington, to the local county chair who is in a position to reach out from the Hotmail account. Though I didn't quite have the same experience singing up to Obama's site (and I also did from an Iowa address), this bit from Matt Stoller tells us how it should work:

In 2004 I signed up to volunteer with the Kerry campaign and got no response. By contrast, within a few hours of signing up on the Obama website, I was contacted by a local group called Metro DC for Obama, offered bumper stickers and yard signs and asked about my schedule and volunteer interests. I was also invited to several primary watch parties, and every tool on the site worked smoothly.

No local field organizer, or regional chair, should be allowed to claim that these are "my" names and hoard them. At stake is the efficient distribution of hundreds of thousands of supporter names, and up to $10 million in online fundraising. 

Without a truly national (or pan-swing state) field campaign cracking heads, I wonder how this happens. At least in such a way that rallies people directly behind the McCain brand.