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Ron Paul's $5M a Wake Up Call

BY Patrick Ruffini | Wednesday, October 3 2007

It looks like I was only a little early in my prediction of a Ron Paul $4 million quarter.

In a quarter when non-Hillary fundraising bottomed out, Ron Paul has shown Republicans that there is a price to be paid for not making the Web a central part of your strategy. Sure, top GOPers read the headlines about Obama's fundraising. But they waved it off as a Democrat phenomenon. Their philosophy: Republicans are from Mars, Democrats are from Venus -- and nothing about one side could every apply to the other.

Paul's nearly matching a weakened John McCain and quintupling offline darling Mike Huckabee could either be a much needed wake up call, or the morphine drip that keeps this top-down fear of the Internet going until catastrophe forces change.

Ron Paul has shown them that a Republican can do this. But he's not a very good Republican. His supporters' slash and burn tactics are not something any campaign would envy. Republican strategists don't see how the successes of an anti-war libertarian can possibly apply to them. Ron Paul gives Internet success a bad name by making it look like a fringe phenomenon.

Though these concerns seem valid on the surface, my reply is simple: Don't bet against the Internet. Overnight, it can respawn itself into something dramatically more relevant to you, or mutate into something dramatically worse, and how you engage the medium helps control which.

Dean may have been considered fringe, but Obama is not. Kerry the milquetoast nominee used the medium to raise four times as much as Dean the screaming firebrand. On the Democrat side, the medium has been used to establish frontrunners or serious challengers. Ron Paul has used it to achieve the dubious distinction of leading the second tier, but in the process probably attracted more donors than any of the top 4 campaigns. My question then is as follows. If a candidate with such a narrow base of support can raise $5 million, imagine what a candidate with mainstream appeal and a strong grassroots message can do?

The Ron Paul trolls (who can probably smell me as I compose this) will violently reject the idea that Ron Paul's tactics can be bottled up and cracked open by just anyone. I completely agree.

And yet for a few bright, shining hours, the mainstream Republican candidates have shown that they too can have $4 million plus online quarters... like when Fred invited the entire country to watch him announce online, or when Rudy went after Hillary on the Petraeus ad. They elevated the Internet into a mainstream communications vehicle and established a visceral connection with their audience.

The challenge is keeping it up. These tactics need to become part of their brand and their campaign's DNA. They need to do it so relentlessly that supporters get the hint that when an interesting story breaks, you don't tune into Fox News, you don't turn on talk radio, you force them to go to the only communications medium you control: your website. Where they can give you money.

This requires being strategic. It requires giving the new media people a seat at the table where strategy and message are first being mapped out. Better yet, it requires senior strategists who understand that below-the-radar, play-it-safe strategies don't work in an online world. And who understand how a sub-par performance in the online world can unravel an entire campaign. (Just ask George and Conrad.)

Specifically, being successful is going to require Rudy to become Fred Siegel's "immoderate centrist" once again -- to be the dogged and relentless critic of the Left he was every day as Mayor of New York City. It's going to require Mitt to act a little less like a walking corporation... because when was the last time someone was inspired by something that looked corporate? (I know... probably not going to happen.) And it's going to require Fred to keep cranking out those Michael Moore videos or back-of-the-van Hillary critiques.

All of these things have to do with message, not blogging, not Twittering, not Web sites. Certain types of messages win online, and others just don't. Mike Huckabee is folksy and smooth and probably great in a room, but he failed to convert his Ames momentum because you can't summarize his campaign in a single word... and despite the IA/NH hype, you can't win the presidency if you can't scale beyond the room.

We can do this. The only question is whether the people making the decisions will myopically see the Paul phenomenon as a measure of the Internet's irrelevance, or see it as a quirky, interim step towards the net playing the key role in future nominating contests.