What can we learn about social media and politics from AR and PA?

How much is Organizing for America’s support worth when thrown behind a conservative candidate that many of the progressives who volunteered on President Obama’s campaign find politically and ideologically distasteful? And what does this say about the role of social media in politics?

In Arkansas yesterday, a coalition labor unions, progressive activists, and ideological liberals failed to topple Senator Blanche Lincoln in the Democratic Primary. Earlier this summer, a similar coalition won the Democratic Senate nomination in Pennsylvania for Joe Sestak, at Arlen Specter’s expense. In both cases, the White House, Organizing for America—the rebranded skeletal operation that remains of President Obama’s campaign organization as an appendix to the Democratic National Committee—and the rest of the party apparatus supported, both publicly and operationally, the more conservative incumbent over a more progressive challenger, for fairly transparent tactical reasons (Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers. Or at least not two losers, in this case).

My friend and colleague Dave Karpf and many others have offered their take on the strategic implications. I will write here about the practical, on-the-ground implications. A presidential endorsement is about money and PR, support from the party machinery is about money, expertise, and strong-arming local interest groups not to back your rivals—but OFA’s support is supposed to be about small-dollar donations and volunteer labor, leveraged via various web platforms.

The question is whether Organizing for America can actually deliver that if the minority on the 13-million strong email list it inherited from Obama for America who might want to volunteer when less is at stake politically than taking back the White House find the candidate they are asked to support unappealing.

I have not seen any numbers on how many calls and knocks were channeled into Arkansas and Pennsylvania through Organizing for America, but I would be surprised if it can compete with what activist groups and interest groups who asked their members to support candidates who might actually fight for their ideals and interests produced—the NYTimes reports that the unions that backed Bill Halter against Lincoln in Arkansas knocked on 170,000 doors and made 700,000 calls. I would like to see numbers from Organizing for America, since it excelled at generating such personal contacts in 2008, and will be tasked with doing so again during the 2010 mid-terms and in 2012.

If state-level progressive blogs are anything to go by, it wouldn’t be much. The Arkansas Project did not warm to the endorsement—witness the title “‘Organizing for America’ continues to be ridiculous.” The analysis from the Pennsylvania Progressive is analogous—“The Obama Movement effectively backed Sestak or stayed home for the most part. Obama cannot take the Obama Movement down paths outside their core values.”

So if my intuition is right, and Organizing for America could not offer much in terms of on-the-ground support for Lincoln and Specter, that is not because the kind of social media-augmented form of organizing its predecessor, Obama for America, represented has lost its potency—it is just that it is hard to control. This is because social media are social first, and tools next. They help people pursue their interest in getting engaged in something, whether that is gossip or politics, but they will disengage when they no longer care—and the people who were willing to get engaged in supporting Obama, and found ways to do so because his campaign engaged them through old-school organizing and clever use of social media, probably weren’t all that interested in supporting Lincoln and Specter, so they stayed home, or backed the other candidate. To make social media work in politics, in short, people have to care.

(cross-posted on TechPresident)

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3 responses to “What can we learn about social media and politics from AR and PA?

  1. Pingback: Some Thoughts on the Arkansas Senate Primary « shouting loudly

  2. Interestingly, I’d say that OFA in 2010 is caught in the same space that many advocacy groups found themselves in 2008. Namely: “why would motivated volunteers come to US instead of someone else?”

    In 2008, that was a fundamental problem for the America Coming Together alumni orgs fielding their own volunteer operations. Why would a volunteer choose to give their time and energy to the Sierra Club, or MoveOn, or League of Women Voters, when they could instead go volunteer directly for the Obama campaign? These groups used to be some of the few field mobilizers out there, and thus they were often the only ones *asking* people to volunteer. In 2008, that pattern was turned on its head.

    Now OFA’s tie to the party apparatus carries a cost for volunteers, because it means they cannot be bold in the primaries. AR is the blatant example, with volunteers who three months ago were putting all their energy into health care reform are now being asked to engage in selective amnesia and mobilize in favor of Blanche Lincoln. But it will be equally tough in the dozens of open-seat primaries between now and Septemer. In Rhode Island, the PCCC and Democracy for America have both endorsed David Segal in the four-way race to fill Patrick Kennedy’s House seat. OFA isn’t going to make an endorsement, but they will be trying to gin up a massive voter contact program, just turning people out to the polls without a message. That puts them at a disadvantage because, if someone is motivated enough to commit dozens of volunteer hours to the democratic primary, they presumably will have some opinion on who should win the thing.

    Maybe the sheer size-advantage of OFAs list will be enough to overcome the problem of supporting a conservative/corporate dem (or supporting no candidate at all). Like you said, a little open data would go a LONG way in this arena (which is the reason I’m not holding my breath that they’ll release anything). But, as you suggest above, I think we’re most likely to see a muted volunteer operation in the 2010 primaries from OFA because, as other advocacy groups found in 2008, there are better suitors for their electoral volunteer hours out there today.

    • The comparison to America Coming Together (ACT) is very interesting, and I agree that OFA faces the challenges you describe. However, OFA has achieved some of the organizational permanence that eluded ACT (in a more skeletal, and hence cheaper and perhaps more sustainable, form). They have also, probably more succesfully, started doing the kind of fairly uncontroversial and moderately useful things that party organizations could be doing, but often aren’t doing, between elections–such as voter registration. Witness Vote 2010.

      In a sense OFA is doing some of the electoral and pre-electoral work one would probably want ordinary party organizations to be doing if one was sitting in the White House or the DNC and thinking through what one would want them to do. Clearly, that only partially overlaps with what liberal and progressive activists want to do (and with what local party regulars want to do), and the activists are the ones who ultimately empower OFA as long as it stays at least partially distinct from the rest of the party.

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