Alignment issues on the campaign trail



On Monday April 30, the Barack Obama campaign had more MySpace friends than all the other leading presidential candidates combined.

By midweek, a dispute with the volunteer who created and managed Obama's MySpace presence left the campaign in control of its page at the social networking site, but at the cost of tens of thousands of names collected by its original owner -- not to mention some bad publicity around the heavy-handed treatment of the volunteer, Joe Anthony.

The Obama campaign's version of events; Obama calls Anthony.

Anthony responds to the Obama blog.

Internet campaigning is still in its early stages, so maybe this kind of alignment issue between the pros and the grassroots shouldn't come as a surprise. Yet similar problems emerged during the last presidential race, which raises the question of how well senior campaign staffers actually understand the net and integrate it into their operations.

At the invaluable TechPresident site, former Howard Dean campaign staffer Zephyr Teachout looks at the sometimes problematic relationship between that groundbreaking organization and its online volunteers. The turf battles were fought on many fronts. Another veteran of the Dean team, Joe Trippi (now an adviser to the John Edwards campaign) told me, "A lot of the fighting that actually happened in the campaign between the establishment and the 'Net roots was over stuff like [who gets to choose delegates]."

Today's Washington Post reports on the diverse approaches to integrating the net at various presidential campaigns.

[I]t's not yet clear how large the role of the [online political operatives] will be. And the struggle between them and more traditional campaign operatives for influence over their candidates is likely to be a subtext at every headquarters, Republican and Democratic, in the next year and a half.

For the people who run campaigns, most of whom grew up in the analog world, the Internet is another tool, a new piece of technology. "Don't get me wrong," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager and Rospars's boss, "the Internet is a powerful organizing and fundraising tool, and it's getting more and more important every day, but it's still not the persuasion and message tool that TV is."

It is a formulation familiar to Andrew Rasiej, a Democratic online strategist and co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigning. "Every campaign will tell you that they get the Web, that they understand its power," he said. "But you have to look at where the power lies. How much influence do their online people have? Not much right now. Fact is, most campaigns, on both sides of the political aisle, think that the Internet is just a slice of the pie. They don't realize it's actually the pan."

Again, this tension between old and new media has been evident for years -- as has its potential cost (this article on the underutilized net resources of Erskine Bowles' 2004 senate campaign is just one example).

Traditional media remain powerful and relevant, and it's easy for those of us who live online to forget that a lot of Americans aren't (yet) right there with us. But as the 2008 campaign gets serious, it looks like the net still isn't getting the respect it deserves from some of the folks in charge.