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What Ron Paul's $4.3M Means

BY Patrick Ruffini | Tuesday, November 6 2007

I was heads-down on a project yesterday afternoon, so I barely had time to notice that it was November 5th. When a reporter emailed for my thoughts on Ron Paul's fundraising day, I remembered and scurried over to, and promptly jumped out of my chair thinking, "Holy s---. It worked."

It was easy to miss "This November 5th." I only found it through my deep dive into Ron Paul fundraising stats. It wasn't that well advertised, outside the Ron Paul forums and blogs. And yet it became the single biggest fundraiser in online political history.

Two points of significance:

  1. This is the first successful application of a fundraising tactic that beats email or an online-exclusive announcement. November 5th wasn't a huge primary win or a big media hit. His supporters basically willed it into existence.
  2. This shows what a healthy, functioning relationship between a campaign and its grassroots actually looks like.

First off, I can guarantee you that every campaign is going to be thinking of how they can do something like this on their own. They might not be able to count on as much money because of the sheer strength of Paul's online support, but the differential between email and a roadblocked fundraising day is going to make them sit up and take notice.

Commoditizing this and bringing it in house entirely misses the point.

November 5th wasn't a genius idea thought up by Ron Paul's inner circle. It came from the grassroots. Why don't campaigns initiate more of this stuff? Because the odds are that supporters are the ones who will be coming up with most of the new ideas, not you. Trippi's axiom about 600,000 online supporters being smarter than 200 people in Burlington still applies. Campaigns succeed not by appropriating the good ideas from the grassroots, but by giving them license to flourish outside the campaign walls, and showing their thanks and appreciation when they actually do work.

There are certain things that mass emails do well. Something like this isn't one of them. Things like this require a zeal and an intensity and an iterativeness that can only be found in trace amounts in any campaign-sponsored venue. Campaign emails can be successful if the response rate is tiny. Obama could send an email announcing his own fundraising day; a certain percentage will pledge, and a certain percentage of those will follow through. Because email is an inherently transactional medium, the numbers aren't likely to be as high relative to the size of the campaign.

By doing this out in the wild you can communicate an offbeat idea like this better, and flesh it out more. You can find concentrations of intent where a willingness to donate is astronomical -- and create enough energy to suck more mass into that energized core.

And, obviously, you can only do it if you have an online grassroots base to do it with.

For all their online prowess, Hillary and Obama's community is built primarily around their email lists. (That's the way these relatively top-down campaigns like it.) You don't have the constellation of grassroots supporter sites you had with Dean, where you'd have blogs and Yahoo Groups for the likes of East Bay Pet Lovers for Dean. Most critically (and tP's Zephyr Teachout can speak to this) what made Dean different is that these groups got their due on the Dean blog. As a result of this symbiotic relationship, you had a virtuous circle of more people willing to create their own groups, and more inspiring grassroots stories to the campaign to highlight.

The Democratic candidates have steered clear of that this time around, for obvious reasons relating to the Dean collapse -- though someone has yet to make a compelling case as to why having a support network like this led to Dean's fall.

And by and large, that has seemed like a smart strategy. Until today, email has always outraised blogging and netroots fundraising. Better to centralize all support on the cumbersome, difficult-to-search My.BarackObama platform than have an unruly network of templated Blogger sites and Yahoo Groups.

Ironically, it's Republicans who are turning to the grassroots to help build resilient networks of support that actually mean something in the stretch run of the primaries. They're doing enough that they just might rewrite the "Dems winning online" meme. And it's not just Ron Paul.

As Zephyr has thoroughly documented on TechPresident, Mike Huckabee is raising some serious coin online. He raised $1.1 million online in October and has set a goal for nearly $2.1 million in November.

Candidates like Paul and Huckabee are better able to capitalize on offline momentum because of the vibrant grassroots ecosystems that exist around them. These campaigns deliberately nurture these ecosystems not by bringing them in house, but by giving them prominent placement on their Web sites and access to inside dirt that was previously the province of finance staff only.

On the Huckabee site, you can add yourself to the Blogroll for Huckabee and get listed on Ron Paul is using radical transparency to boost his fundraising numbers, building a cottage industry of addicts who will give money based on the ebb and flow of the figures posted on the Web site. It was probably because the campaign wasn't on track to make its October goal that these activists were inspired to do something big on November 5th to catch up. Beyond the specific tactics, everything about the body language of these campaigns towards the grassroots is welcoming and open. If I'm sharing my live fundraising numbers with you and the rest of the world -- on your terms, not mine -- that shows that you're important and you matter.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a Giuliani or a Romney or even a Clinton supporter. What is your incentive to create a grassroots network for these candidates? You'll probably never get real recognition from the official campaign. The campaign will keep you at arms length. You won't get access to the kind of raw data from the campaign that keeps you coming back and builds a real sense of investment in the cause. Speaking as someone who's been on both sides of the campaign/grassroots divide, I can tell you that stuff like this matters. When I was building an online community for Bush in 2000, the traffic and notes of encouragement I got from people on the campaign was a huge motivator.

The end result of a campaign-only grassroots strategy will still be a Clinton/Obama/Giuliani/Romney voter. But it won't be a Clinton/Obama/Giuliani/Romney advocate. You won't get those critical first few evangelists you need to seed a community that can do a "This November 5th" or anything even close to it.

Grassroots enthusiasm is not something you can buy. The distinctiveness of a candidate's message matters hugely -- that's why Ron Paul is important. But Huckabee's message wasn't different enough from Fred Thompson's or Sam Brownback's to spawn a flourishing online movement on its own. What the campaign did online mattered.

I was looking for a metric to illustrate the point about the relative sparseness of organically-driven candidate blogospheres this time around, and I think I've found it in a search on posts within the last thirty days on blogs titled "for [candidate name]." (Using just the candidate gave me a lot of spam.) Ron Paul is well past the tipping point but the divide among the other candidates is stark in its own right. Here are the numbers:

Ron Paul 1,744
Mike Huckabee 77
Mitt Romney 67
Fred Thompson 43
Barack Obama 39
Rudy Giuliani 18
Hillary Clinton 13
John Edwards 11
Bill Richardson 11
John McCain 7
Tom Tancredo 3
Chris Dodd 2
Joe Biden 0
Duncan Hunter 0

A few points here, then the wrap:

  • This is just the tip of the iceberg. Lots of other candidate blogs out there. This is just the cleanest measure I could find.
  • Ron Paul = network effect.
  • Okay, so I was (maybe) a little too hard on Mitt earlier. The pro-Romney blogosphere is large and renowned, though some its key figures come directly from Romneyworld (Justin Hart, David French). These blogs have shown they can do great things (My Man Mitt raising $75K) when the campaign has given them the kind of tools I have described in this post.
  • Is it just me, or is the lack of pro-candidate Democratic blogs striking? This is a whole other post, but there seems to be a pretty striking enthusiasm gap within the Democratic electorate between rank-and-file (largely women and minority) voters and the netroots. The netroots is completely AWOL in the Presidential primary.