American Consequences - January 2018

highly inefficient (by design, a few patsies suspected). It entailed enormous overhead inflated by outlandish fees. But, along with equally scattershot broadcast advertising, it was the only game in town, short of hiring campaigners to go door to door stealing spare change from under the voters’ sofa cushions. If 1.5% of direct mail recipients responded positively after a mailing of a few million cards or letters, it was considered a spectacular success. If the rate of return fell too far below that, however, the campaign might not even get its money back. The direct mail industry is still alive, as anyone with a mailing address in a contested congressional district can attest every other November. But just barely. The Internet broke its stranglehold over mass political fundraising. Dean proved that the web could bring you money, name identification, and the attention of devoted followers, at very little cost. What it couldn’t bring you, at least on its own, was victory. Dean’s message of radical reform and socialized medicine went viral thanks to the Internet. Unlucky for him, the Internet also alerted millions of voters to the fact that he was sanctimonious, short-tempered, and far too intense for prime time – in short, a pretty scary candidate. For all its digital wizardry, the Dean campaign effectively ended with his maniacally hysterical performance at a post-primary rally. (To this day, the “I Have a Scream speech” has been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube.) Here was one traditional campaign barrier the new technology hadn’t been able to breach: If you wanted to win, you needed a candidate who

was presentable in polite company. Which is where Barack Obama comes in. Obama’s 2008 campaign set a smooth- talking candidate with wide appeal – he could be a college professor one moment, a fiery preacher the next, and a slippery pol in between – atop an organization that perfected all of the Dean campaign’s digital tricks and added its own. Not only could you use the web to seek out supporters and connect them to one another; you could use it to build personal profiles of each volunteer and probable voter, neighborhood by neighborhood, block to block, even house to house. The web could bring you inexpensive data with which you could catalogue and cross tabulate their special issues, their voting history, the intensity of their support – bits of information that could then be assembled in any combination to predict voting patterns and point to where resources could most efficiently be used. It was narrowcasting of a kind that had never been possible before. Without it, Obama wouldn’t have beaten his rival Hillary Clinton in 2008, and wouldn’t have become president. Convention delegates, then as now, were allocated in one of two ways – by primary and by caucus (or statewide convention). Primaries, says the conventional wisdom, are won by overwhelming resources: Tons of money for statewide advertising, direct mail, local consultants, and paid canvassers. Caucuses, by contrast, are won by a superior organization animated by an abundance of grassroots enthusiasm. Hillary Clinton, with her professional staff and brimming coffers, gave the Internet only

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