Before they chartered planes and opened teeming offices in Des Moines or Manchester, even before they announced their lofty ambitions to the world, the current field of presidential candidates set about absorbing the lessons of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. Dean lost, of course, and in a fairly ignominious way, but his campaign was the first to harness the fund-raising and organizing power of the Internet, and both parties’ 2008 hopefuls had visions of replicating his model — minus the meltdown. One of the first things they did was to sign on a new class of online organizers and fund-raisers. The Web was the new frontier of American politics, and the candidates intended to exploit it.
STARTING DEC. 12, THE PRIMARY ARGUMENT, a new blog by Matt Bai, takes a deeper look inside the presidential campaign. nytimes.com/
Now, as we come to the end of a tumultuous political year, it seems clear that the candidates and their advisers absorbed the wrong lessons from Dean’s moment, or at least they failed to grasp an essential truth of it, which is that these things can’t really be orchestrated. Dean’s campaign didn’t explode online because he somehow figured out a way to channel online politics; he managed this feat because his campaign, almost by accident, became channeled by people he had never met. Dean for America was branded from its core antiwar message down to the design of some of its bumper stickers and buttons by laptop-laden volunteers, and these strangers, it could be argued, both made and unmade the candidate. In the new and evolving online world, the greatest momentum goes not to the candidate with the most detailed plan for conquering the Web but to the candidate who surrenders his own image to the clicking masses, the same way a rock guitarist might fall backward off the stage into the hands of an adoring crowd.
How else to explain the notable online surge of support for Ron Paul, the onetime standard-bearer of the Libertarian Party? Unlike his main opponents, Paul himself didn’t have the resources to build a sophisticated Web campaign, but antiwar and antispending Republicans were happy to do it for him. Last month, Paul supporters who had nothing to do with the campaign organized an online fund-raiser on Guy Fawkes Day, a British holiday named for the rebel who tried to assassinate King James I. Paul’s stunned campaign brought in more than $4 million and 21,000 new contributors in a single day — the largest 24-hour haul of any Republican candidate to date.
Meanwhile, those candidates who have amassed roomfuls of well-paid online experts have frequently found themselves buffeted or embarrassed (or sometimes both at once) by mysterious forces outside their grasp. Take, for instance, the much-forwarded “Obama Girl” music video, written by a 21-year-old undergraduate at Temple University. (“Universal healthcare reform/It makes me warm,” mouths the model in the video.) Fairly or not, that video probably had more to do with shaping Obama’s complicated public image — young and exciting but maybe a bit shallow — than any Internet appeal devised by the candidate’s own aides.
Such developments probably came as no surprise to many in the business world, who understood years ago that the Web represented not simply another mass medium to be gamed but also a fundamental shift in the once static relationship between producer and consumer. It is by nature a participatory medium, in which customers demand a more personal stake in the products they consume. This is why Ford asked online drivers to help decide which options should appear on last year’s Fusion, and how much it should cost, and why Mountain Dew has a Web site that invites consumers to invent the next great soft drink. Companies have realized that since they can no longer expect to unilaterally define the market the way they once did, they might as well let the market have some control over designing and branding the product.
Perhaps only in Washington, where so few people have dominated so much for so long, is this trend viewed as inherently negative. That’s because, for decades, presidential campaigns have been the exclusive province of a small bevy of ad makers and strategists who profited from the illusion that they, and only they, could foresee the electorate’s every reaction to everything. The results of that period are now in: a marked decline in voter participation, an uptick in cynicism toward public service and a heap of critical policy challenges that have gone unaddressed. So why should we fear a new day when ordinary voters, through their own creativity and passion, can suddenly influence the direction of a campaign with a Web site or a video? These are, after all, our campaigns, for too long dominated by the professionals who made of them a gray and tepid industry. And if “Obama Girl” didn’t deepen anyone’s understanding of employer mandates or carbon caps, then at least she enticed a lot of ordinary people — more than four million, at last count — to laugh and sing about a would-be president the way a less-jaded generation of voters sang “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
Of course, the leading candidates still aren’t ready to entrust their message to the masses. (Look no further than Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which has apparently planted questions in public forums in an effort to control the dialogue.) Whichever candidates get their parties’ nominations next year, they will probably try valiantly to insulate their campaigns from the kind of Internet entrepreneurs and amateur videographers who would distract voters from their predetermined message. But this is a losing proposition; about the only thing we can reasonably know for sure about the general election campaign is that it will be profoundly affected by outside actors we can’t yet conjure, voters sitting in basements and coffee shops dreaming up their own kind of self-expression. Neither party’s candidate will escape the impulses, best or worst, of a newly empowered citizenry. The best they can do is to fall backward and hope to be carried aloft.