Is the Obama campaign’s new tool “Dashboard” the “Holy Grail” of Digital Campaigning? Nobody knows

According to Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel, writing in the Guardian, the Obama campaign is about to “unleash [the] ‘Holy Grail’ of digital campaigning.”

The grail in question is a new tools called “Dashboard”, meant to integrate voter contact, volunteer management, and activist social networking in one shared and accessible platform.

The campaign writes on their website, “for the first time ever, you’ll be able to join, connect with, and build your neighborhood team online.” (In other words, at this level of generality, it is kinda like MeetUp, DeanSpace, DFA-Link, MyBarackObama, National Field, etc, only different.)

It sounds great. Will it work? I have no clue. Neither do Pilkington and Michel, which they openly admit. As they write–

“[The campaign staffers] are keeping specific details about Dashboard heavily under wraps for fear that they might lose the substantial advantage they now enjoy over their rivals in the Romney campaign.”

So all we know about Dashboard at this point is that the Obama campaign has this new tool, that they have decided to promote its existence, that they say it will work (“substantial advantage”), but that they won’t tell us how, precisely.

In addition to the caveat quoted above, Pilkington and Michel’s article also includes all the usual buzzwords–Dashboard is “secret”, it is “sophisticated”, it is “powerful”, and it is being developed by brand-name “gurus” like Michael Slaby, Joe Rospars, and Jeremy Bird. (I’m trying to imagine a campaign that would let dimwits develop a feeble tool.) It’s already subject to speculation elsewhere, including on TechPresident.

Like other “Holy Grails” presented by “gurus” it is at this stage a question of faith whether you believe it will work (as a matter of fact, “Holy Grail” and “McCainSpace” was once mentioned in the same article).

I’m glad journalists like Pilkington and Michel are covering campaign technologies, because often-obscure back-end technologies like Dashboard increasingly matter for how digital politics works in practice, gives some campaigns a competitive edge, and structure how ordinary people can get involved and in what. But unless you are part of the team developing Dashboard or involved in testing it, at this point you won’t really have any evidence of its potential beyond whatever PR the campaign puts out.

I have every reason to believe that the people involved in developing Dashboard are smart, that they are very good at what they are doing, and that the tools they have developed will help them further rationalize, control, and perhaps even energize the Obama campaign’s voter contact program.

But I do get a little skeptical every time I encounter a heavily marketed new digital tool, whether it is being spun by a campaign wanting to assert it is ahead, or by a consultant peddling her wares. Is this another Demzilla, marketed aggressively by then-DNC chair Terry McAuliffe ( here in the Washington Post) but in practice a debacle–

“You could ask me about any city block in America, and I could tell you how many on that block are likely to be health care voters, or who’s most concerned about education or job creation […] And I could press a button and six seconds later you’d have a name, an address and a phone number for each of them. We can then begin a conversation with these people that is much more sophisticated and personal than we ever could before.”

Sounds good, Terry. Shame it didn’t work.

Is Dashboard another heavily hyped tool that won’t work in practice? Or is it the real thing? As said, I don’t know. Very few do, and they are not going to tell us very much at this stage. They have good reasons to hold their cards close to their chests.

Every cycle we are presented with new revolutionary tools. And some tools that actually really do change how politics is practiced. Sometimes, the tools we are presented with before, and the ones that in hindsight turned out to have made a real difference are not the same ones at all.

2008 was supposed to be the Facebook Election  or the YouTube election. But a good case can be made that more specialized back-end tools like the Voter Activation Network that I write about in my book or the MyBarackObama site that Daniel Kreiss writes about in his forthcoming book were actually in many ways more important. My point is simply that at this stage, we don’t know, and since the proof is in the pudding, in a way we can’t know–to find out, we’ll have to do more than simply listen to the PR hype, but go have a look at how these tools are used in practice, on the ground, battle-tested on the campaign trail.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

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