Houston, We have Contention

Clay Shirky responded by email today to my pushback on his important Many 2 Many post, Is Social Software Bad for the Dean Campaign?

Britt, you say “Let’s spend some cycles on the answers, not on sounding like an expert.”

My apologies for the snarky comment, Clay. Your post intersected with my peeve-of-the-week on the chorus of doomsayers having witnessed the first mile of a marathon, projecting the results on little evidence with a pundit-like urgency. As my man Dean might say, we can do better than that.

Before we spend those cycles on answers, maybe we oughta spend some on questions.

The interesting thing about politics is that it goes from theological to phenomenological in an instant, and the phenomenology of a presidential race is voter turnout. I think you’ve posted a good description of the campaign as it existed a week ago Monday morning, but by a week ago Monday evening, any analysis of the campaign had to factor in the Iowa loss.

Not only did Dean fail to win, eviscerating the inevitability story, and not only did he fail to come in second, he came in a distant third, getting half of Kerry’s numbers, 14 points behind *Edwards*, and only 8 points ahead of a guy who dropped out of the race.

So while the story of politics based on the engagement of the volunteers is interesting, if it doesn’t get people to the polls, it won’t amount to much in the short term.

Of course voter turnout is the point of the campaign. The question to ask is whether there’s a social network around the Dean campaign that can learn how to improve its methods and execution and deliver more votes starting next week in the states that are statistically significant, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire. Clay’s open-ended question in Many 2 Many asked if social software had been bad for the Dean campaign. That’s a striking question from Clay, who believes strongly in the promise of social software.

My point is the counterpoint: Dean doesn’t have too much social software, he’s got not quite enough. It’s obvious that only social software got him here. If the network learns how to act locally better, and if enough people in each state are attracted to his outsider message, then Clay’s concerns are the kind you have about beta software that’s almost right, not whether software is worth developing.

Clay continues:

Standard political analysis could explain a strong second place showing by Dean, but seeing him come in a distant third suggests to me that something more structural is at work. Dean has obviously unleashed a powerful new set of forces, but his use of them has not translated into votes, and the enormity of the gap between perception and reality suggests something other than a few swing voters changing their minds.

So while the campaign may be terrific at the “issues-based emails and letters” you describe in your post, its been third-place at getting votes. I wonder why that is, and your response does little to answer that question, which is, after all, the only one that will determine whether Dean becomes the Democratic nominee.

Then what should we make of Dean’s strong-enough field-defining second place finish in New Hampshire? Is the social network learning? Was he just the lucky Governor  from next door? Does that mean Clay will now retract his dismissal of of Dean’s Iowa performance?

Running the Numbers

Despite the pundits’ glee at having a horse race to sell, Kerry picked up just 6 more delegates than Dean did tonight: 14 to 8. This reduces Dean’s delegate lead over Kerry from 25 to 19. What’s that? Dean’s delegate lead? WTF?

Yes, Dean’s lead. Because of early commitments by Democratic luminaries called “super delegates”, Dean remains ahead, according to CNN, 115 delegates to 96.

Larry King and Bob Dole and Bob Woodward on CNN just now agreed to the jaw-dropping revelation that New Hampshire’s 27 delegates don’t even budge the needle, being just 1-1/2% of the 2,162 delegates needed to win the nomination. They also noted that Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to win New Hampshire and the Presidency.

Earlier, someone noted that the last senator to win the Presidency was JFK, who only made it because his dad and Richard Daley bought the Iowa vote. Before that, you’ve got to look back a century for a senator becoming President. Governors routinely win the Presidency.

But none of that matters. Let’s stipulate that deference among true believers when approaching voters is hugely important. The Iowa/New Hampshire bounce for Kerry is hugely important. Politics is perception, and there’s plenty of perception to go around.

But also, this is still a mediafest and an election is about votes. A marathoner runs on glucose and a campaign runs on money. Only Howard Dean and John Kerry are allowed by law to campaign during the critical June-September period. That’s because they are not limited by the Federal Campaign limitations. (In 2000, Al Gore was even prevented from even driving in public after he spent the matching funds, since that was construed as spending gas money on campaigning.)

So Dean may or may not inspire his base to renew their vows, pony up more bucks and take the country back

The reason the campaign would be foolish to give up on social software is that it stands a much better chance of making it work than does Friendster or the others. Winning the Presidency is a lot more interesting project than triggering automatic emails to people who don’t want them.

We Netizens believe that blogs and more directed forms of social software have the potential to free us from the assaults of traditional media. Clay’s point is an important caution but it does not dissuade me from the wisdom of promoting working code and frequent revisions.

I believe there is some combination of message, UI, interactivity and coalescing social memes that can attract millions of people to the high-probability candidate – a centrist governor with the most registered supporters and donors and a receptive pool of fast-learning, highly connected people listening for a message galvanizing enough to move them.

Some Figures

At the JFK School of Government, the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy is conducting the Vanishing Voter Project. Their Voter Involvement Index measures, well, voter involvement. You can almost hear their exasperation that the nation is so focused on what is, essentially, the New Hampshire beauty contest for 27 delegates out of 4,315 (obviously, the same applies to Iowa’s 45 delegates):

In the eyes of Americans outside the state, New Hampshire’s presidential primary is more than just a critical first test of the candidates’ support. It is
seen as a decisive contest in the allocation of delegates to the national party conventions. Although the New Hampshire primary selects only about 1% of the delegates, Americans think the total is much larger. When asked in the weekly Shorenstein Center national poll whether New Hampshire selects 25%, 10%, 5%, or 1% of the national convention delegates, only one in eight respondents said 1%. More than three times as many picked a higher figure, and 14% even claimed that New Hampshire selects 25% of the convention delegates.

“This is an indication that the primary system, as currently structured, is simply too complex for most people to understand,” says Marvin Kalb, co-director of the Vanishing Voter Project for which the poll was conducted. “Too many Americans exaggerate New Hampshire’s importance and role.”

The inflated perception of New Hampshire stems from the enormous attention that its first-in-the nation primary receives from candidates and the news media. In recent presidential elections, no primary has received as much national news coverage as New Hampshire’s, and the pattern is unlikely to change this year.

12:33:35 AM    

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