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[OP-ED] Americans Elect: They Built It, And Nobody Came

BY David Karpf | Friday, May 4 2012

David Karpf: Americans Elect suffers from the "Field of Dreams Fallacy." Photo: Ron Cogswell

David Karpf is an Assistant Professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, as well as a Faculty Associate in the Eagleton Institute of Politics. His new book, The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy, comes out May 30. He will also be speaking at Personal Democracy Forum 2012.

Via DailyKos, Americans Elect has postponed their online "caucuses" for a month. The problem, it seems, is twofold:

1. They don't have a candidate.

2. Lacking a candidate, they don't have much online traffic.

I've written about this before, in relation to my spiffy new hat. But the lesson here deserves further examination. I'm going to go ahead and call this one a failure. If the mainstream media blitz and SXSW awards of the past year haven't generated enthusiasm, it isn't going to appear out of the ether in the 11 days between now and May 15th first "caucus." What's more, Americans Elect is evidence of a common misunderstanding of Internet politics. Elsewhere, I've termed this the "Field of Dreams Fallacy."

The Field of Dreams Fallacy ("if you build it, they will come") plagues all sorts of expensive, half-baked projects in online politics. A few years ago, dozens of interest groups looked at the success of social networking sites like Facebook and became convinced that they should launch their own, branded social networks. Millions of dollars later, it turned out that they were all building virtual ghost towns. Technology alone doesn't create political communities. If your members are already happily on Facebook, they're unlikely to divert that time and spend it on a Sierra Club- or NRA-specific social network instead. The real successes in online politics comes at the intersection of motivated communities-of-interest and supportive technological platforms.

Americans Elect was founded on the gimmicky premise that the power of the Internet would "break the gridlock of Washington" by letting online citizens vote in their own non-party primary. Set aside the obvious flaws in that premise (putting a candidate on the ballot does not elect them to office. Electing a president doesn't remove the gridlock-inducing Senate filibuster.). An awful lot of citizens already vote in primaries -- Mitt Romney has received over 5 million votes in the Republican primaries, and he's constantly criticized for being unpopular. In a country of 311 million mostly-disaffected citizens, one can certainly make that case. The promise of Americans Elect is that the Internet be a bridge to involvement for the rest of us.

From St Paul, MN's Tri-City Herald, we get the following indicator of just how unfulfilled that promise has been:

Ileana Wachtel, a spokeswoman for the group, says no one gathered enough online "clicks" to qualify. Candidates must show they have the backing of at least 1,000 people in at least 10 states. Some candidates must reach a threshold of 5,000 supporters in each of 10 states because they haven't held high enough office before under the Americans Elect bylaws.

"It is their responsibility to get the clicks," Wachtel said. "We are just merely the platform for them to run on."

Ron Paul is currently the most popular "draft candidate" (meaning he hasn't actually agreed to run) with 8,753 supporters on the site. Compared to Ron Paul's online fanbase, that's an abysmally small number. The most popular declared candidate (meaning he's actually agree to run) is Buddy Roemer, with 4,389 supporters. I spoke to Wachtel and asked where the influx of additional activity is expected to come from. She noted that the declared candidates and draft campaigns are "working hard" to drum up support, and said they'd reevaluate on May 15th if the 1,000-people-in-10-states threshold had not been reached.

Pay attention to that last line from Wachtel, though: "It's their responsibility to get the clicks... We are just merely the platform for them to run on." That's ridiculous. AmericansElect has spent the better part of a year shamelessly self-promoting the revolutionary power of this platform. Now it turns out they've thrown a party and no one has shown up, and it seems their response is to blame the guests. 466,000 people have "liked" Americans Elect on Facebook and 10,803 Twitter followers. That's support for the platform. When presented with the top three options of Buddy Roemer, Rocky Anderson, and Michaelene Risly, that support evaporates. (And even if it stayed strong, 466,000 is a lot smaller than Mitt Romney's 5,000,000+ votes.)

Americans Elect is the best example of the Field of Dreams Fallacy I have ever observed. The organization spent a reported $9 million building a cutting edge platform, assuming that high-priced technology and a mainstream media blitz would result in a centrist groundswell that revolutionizes American politics. It built no participatory community, and assumed that the Internet would magically serve one up for them. The result has been an all-too-predictable failure.

Maybe, just maybe, this was prove a high-enough profile blunder that we'll learn something from it about the limits of online politics from it. The lowered transaction costs of the web help to reveal the true demand curve for citizen politics. That can prove transformative -- particularly around issues where there's pent-up demand, but traditionally high barriers to participation. That's not the case with voting, however. The barriers to voting aren't very high. People don't follow politics because they don't like politics. For issues where no one was particularly motivated, and barriers were already pretty low, the new media environment doesn't change outcomes. There is no radical center in American politics. Build the nicest platform money can buy for a disinterested population and you're still going to be left hearing the chirp of online crickets.

Next time, wealthy donors who want to improve the quality of American democracy should keep the Field of Dreams Fallacy in mind. It will lead them to smarter investment decisions.