Lost in the chronicles of what Hillary Clinton did wrong are the explanations for what Barack Obama did right; the reasons why campaign managed to unseat and remake the party’s establishment at the same time, a reason why he became the first insurgent campaign to succeed since 1980. We know what he did: putting together an astounding and incredible small donor base of more than 1.7 million people; an e-mail list of untold millions of people; mobilizing thousands of volunteers for the primary; we know, to a certain extent, how he did it; MyBo.com, the insights of his financial backers as chronicled by Joshua Green; the reliance on and appeal to young, wired, webbed, voters with cash to spare; we know the political environment strongly puts its thumb on the balance scale in favor of change. But what connects the why with the how? After all, millions of people had to be incentivized to join Obama’s campaign-cum-movement. The change environment certainly spurs people to vote, and as we’ve seen, Hillary Clinton had plenty of voters. Since Florida, Democrats haven’t fallen victim to the psychological error of concluding that single votes don’t amount to anything. Obama got about as many votes as his challenger; the votes themselves aren’t very remarkable. What IS remarkable, of course, is that the number of person-hours devoted by Obama supporters to this campaign probably far exceeds the standard set by any other campaign in history.
My theory is that the campaign leveraged technology and the environment and stumbled upon a solution to the Free Rider problem in politics.
Briefly stated, the Free Rider problem notices that there is no real incentive for volunteers, or actors in the political system, to expend resources, either temporal or material, because it’s much easier and much less expensive for them to cruise along in the wake of others. In most campaigns, activists who have already invested in whatever system we’re talking about don’t need incentives, and frontrunning candidates tend to benefit from an establishment that exponentializes their work by several orders of magnitude. No so for insurgent campaigns; they start from scratch, often accidentally, in the sense that their genesis is often a reaction to events, and they’ve got to build something from nothing. Previous political insurgencies have failed because ideology along was insufficient to carry them across a line, be it, in the case of Howard Dean, a first-place finish in Iowa.
How did Obama change the feedback loop to incentivize his supporters to spend the necessary time, energy and money?
One, by direct feedback, including repeated, informal contacts from the campaign letting them know precisely what their time and money was doing and how it was actively changing the system. (Joe Trippi, in 2004, was on to this when he would put up that big red bat and watch as it filled with donations.)
Two: By personal touches. One of the best ways that MyBO.com helped to counteract the sense of collective anonymity in campaigns was by linking folks of like minds together, sometimes by geography but mostly by affinity groups, much like the Republican National Committee did so successfully in 2004. A key subconcept here is ownership. Through the campaign, volunteers were given ownership responsibilities over particular slices of the electorate – a list of people to persuade, a tranche of activists to mobilize.
Three: Results. Winning Iowa, defeating the incumbent (Hillary Clinton), suddenly there was proof that taking extra time to write those fellow college students in Iowa really pushed people over the line.
Four: Losing New Hampshire AFTER Winning Iowa. Those invested in the campaign felt the solidary effect of Iowa’s victory and were given a new hurdle to overcome shortly thereafter. What better way to get back into the groove than to do it all over again: more volunteer hours, more commitments, more online chatting, more donations. I am very much proposing that the greatest benefit to Obama supporters was solidary – the feeling of belonging to something special and communal and having interests and obligations arising from that thing – that the need to get back to that place incentivized the work early on.
This explanation is fairly obvious, when you think about it, and yet it does offer lessons for future campaigns. One is that these sorts of campaigns cannot be launched in a vacuum. If Americans were happy, if Democrats were satisfied, if Hillary Clinton had voted against the Iraq war, the technological and psychological insights of the Obama campaign would be trapped in a valley. The political atmosphere, or the environment, or whatever you want to call it, absolutely matters, as does the way in which the candidate intersects with history. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign was able to master the free rider problem because the candidate (a strong commander in chief) meshed with the environment (fear of terrorism as artificially enhanced by the administration and the campaign), and volunteers and donors had something to belong to.
What the Bush and Obama campaigns have in common is a sense of credible urgency about their causes; through technology, they convinced their donors and volunteers to recognize the urgency and to believe – to see – that individuals could do something about it.
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