Political Technology: Why You Probably Shouldn’t Care

Quick story:

One fine day, I was managing a campaign for a typical Republican candidate in a slightly left-leaning district when, about 48 hours before Election Day, I was informed that I’d need to take 30 of my volunteers off important jobs like phone banking, door-knocking, and giving voters a ride to the polls, and have them sit in the polling stations next to the Big Book of Registered Voters, using their cell phones to tick off the names of the Republicans who came in to vote for some new technological doo-hickey thingamabobber…apparently the state party had put this all together for all the Republican candidates.  I still don’t know what it was, because it probably hasn’t been used since.

Anywho, I tried to cobble together some kids to do this incredibly boring task, but when E-Day came, I had better things to do and, whoops, apparently my race was the ONLY one not popping up numbers on their fancy new thingy they probably spent WAAAY too much money on, and boy did I get an unprofessionally worded phone call from my napoleonic boss!

Oh, but I won that race.  By a significant margin.  And you know who didn’t win?  Every. Other. Republican. In the state.  Well, running for a contentious seat in the state legislature.  We lost a ton of seats that year.

And what did I get for my insubordinate success?

you're fired political campaign

Except Trump is way better looking than my then boss.

But I was like –

Whatever political campaign

Whatevs, sucka.

And I moved to DC and never looked back.  Luckily, this experience was on-the-job learning gold.  After that, I had a whole new set of rules and tools that helped me avoid future techno mistakes.

So without further ado, here are the 5 rules of political technology:

  1. Don’t be distracted by shiny new gadgets or digital online thingies that promise to make Election Day run smoothly and give you the biggest win since GW the original was nearly crowned king of the USA.  
  2. Facebook likes and re-tweets are not votes.  And they never will be.  Even national level candidates still need to learn this fact.  I’ve actually seen campaign plans that based their numbers on the idea that maybe they were.
  3. If it’s not already in the budget, don’t spend money on it.  
  4. Yes, there are a few ‘technologies’ that you should invest in, the first being a website.  But not a $3,000 website some scheister tries to sell you on.  One your teenage son makes for you for like $10 a month through Hostgator (like this one!) and then uses to double as his final project for computer class.  You should have a presence on Facebook and Twitter because it’s fun and it’s free and it’s a great way to communicate, but it is NOT worth spending ‘real’ time or money on.
  5. Don’t let the state party, local party, a special interest group, or any other entity or person outside your campaign push you into spending time or money on something that’s not in your campaign plan.  You may be a Republican, but that does not make you beholden to them!
  6. Bonus rule!  You are running for county commissioner (or an equally local race), dude.  You do not need some crazy start up business sending texts on your behalf to every cell phone in your area code!  Do not pay for that $h*t!
At this point you are thinking, “Great!  I now know to be leery of political technology.  But I’m really not sure what that is.”  Ah, well, I’m glad you brought that up!  The term ‘political technology’ doesn’t really have a definition yet, but what you’re on the lookout for is -
  • anything online, including email and online fundraising
  • anything on cell phones, like apps voters can have on their phones, or texting services.
  • most things that give you ‘data’ that you can’t somehow dig up yourself, like a voter database.

These are the types to avoid, at least, because at the local level they’re really not worth the money.  If you’re in a really hot race and they really are worth the time and money, I guarantee a friendly special interest group will be more than happy to shell out the cash and manpower to make it happen.  If they aren’t willing to pay for it themselves, it’s probably not worth paying for.

In conclusion, while technological advances have definitely changed the way campaigns are run and won at the congressional and presidential levels, they simply don’t make much of an impact below that point yet in most of the country.  In more urban areas, *free* technology (not specifically political in nature, however) like Facebook has proven to be a method of breaking through the noise to get some attention, but still has no real impact on election results.  Stick to the basics, the methods that have worked from our nation’s Day 1, and you’ll carve out a clear path to victory.

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How The Internet Has Changed Politics

internet campaign politics

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The Internet has drastically changed the tactics and strategies many campaigns use to communicate to their constituencies.  But it hasn’t really changed politics.  If anything, it has simply amplified politics, making it a more commonplace part of the average American’s daily life.  The changes that have occurred, however, have made it much easier for Mr. Smith to get to Washington, and much more likely to get prematurely kicked out, as well.

The Dawn of Retail PR in Politics

Thanks to campaign websites, email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, smartphones, and a host of other web 2.0 creations, political communications folks have amassed a wide variety of online tools to bring their campaign message directly to the voters.

Gone are the days that you have to wine and dine reporters in order to get favorable coverage, crossing your fingers that they don’t mangle your press releases.  Gone, too, are the days of brazenly having DC mistresses while your wife maintains your seemingly perfect family life back in Smalltown, USA, or of making excuses and accusations like “That was clearly taken out of context,” or, “I was misquoted,” because chances are the event or speech in question will be posted to YouTube moments after it happens. The Internet has given politicians the raw power to make or break their own reputations.

Everything in Real Time

The Internet has exponentially sped up the process of getting messages from sender to receiver, and back again.  In the blink of an eye, the whole world can – and will – find out about how you goofed up an important speech, dropped the F-bomb at a somber ceremony, or dialed 900 numbers from your cell phone.  Additionally, a candidate or politician that wants to have real communication with their constituents can do so much easier, faster and cheaper than ever before through social media, live chats, email and blogs.

Journalism Is Weakened

Since the dawn of our nation (and before) journalism has been the leading shaper of public opinion.  But thanks to the internet, journalism as we know it is fundamentally changed.  As evidenced by websites like the Drudge Report, Conservative Blogs Central and many more, it’s no longer necessary to get a degree in English and work for a paper and ink newspaper to have a dramatic impact on public opinion.  Average American citizens everywhere have the opportunity to at least make their voices heard by writing blogs, commenting on major news outlets’ online articles, microblogging through Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, and even connecting with each other in person via Meetup.

Politics Is Still Politics

Despite all of the changes we’ve seen since the dawn of the Internet age, politics is still the same.  It’s about people.  And not just any people, your people.  The people that you represent, a.k.a. your constituency.  And it’s about maintaining an open dialog, being true to yourself and true to the needs and wants of your district.  While there are many new ways to facilitate open communication, the core meaning of politics will never change.

 

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Are Political Websites Worth The Money?

gingrich- campaign website, political website

To create a good, fully functional website for your political campaign from the ground up will cost you about $3,000-5,000.  Is it worth the money?

Back when I started doing campaigning, I would have said ‘yes, absolutely.’  But times have changed.  I recognized the importance of being accessible to the voters through the internet, and I’ve always felt that a website is a must for anyone running for state legislature or mayor and higher offices.  But 10-15 years ago, there weren’t really many cheaper options available.

So are political websites worth the money now?  Well, I’d say ‘it depends.’  As in, it depends how much money you have raised and plan to raise, it depends how much of your communications strategy relies on online interaction, i.e. social networking, email, etc., and it depends, again, on the office you’re running for.  If you’re running for county council – no.  City council?  Sure, maybe you need a website, if it’s a big city and a competitive district, but not a tricked out, expensive one.  Mayor or state legislatures should at least consider the option of a professionally designed website if they are in big or competitive districts.  And Congressional and statewide candidates do indeed need to budget for a nice website and someone to for someone to handle it.

There you go!  A straight-forward answer!  How many times to you search for the ‘cost’ of things, or ‘should I do XYZ’ and all you get is ‘maybe, maybe, maybe’ with no solid information.  So there it is – office for office, yes or no, and the factors to consider.  You’re welcome!

“But wait, you said there were cheaper options now.  What if I’m running for city clerk of BFE, Nowhere, and I still want to do a website?”

No worries!  There are a ton of cheap/free options.

  • Build your own.  You can buy a campaign domain name and get someplace to host it, and build the entire thing yourself using WordPress.  That’s how I’ve done this website, and trust me, I am not tech-savvy.  I use hostgator to buy domain names and host my website.  They are affordable and their customer service seriously kicks ass.  I haven’t yet messed up my site so bad that they couldn’t fix it.  This option requires time, so I suggest you find some young, tech-savvy whipper-snapper volunteer to do it for you.  This person could be the same person to do your social media and email, although usually those jobs require a different ‘type’ of person.  Building websites is kind of left-brainy and social media/email is kind of right-brainy.  Do what works for your team.  Either way, they will be working on most things together.
    Cost: $100-$500, depending on how fancy you want to get.
  • Pre-fab websites.  I randomly found this pre-fabricated political website via WordPress one day and I think it’s a fantastic concept.  They are clean, they cover all the bases, and they are customizable.  If you’re not planning to do tons of crazy online stuff, this is super easy.  There are probably more out there if you do a search.  It’s essentially the same as the last bullet point, but takes care of the first 20-30 steps of the building process for you.
    Cost: $100-$500
  • Political Web Consultants.  I don’t know much about this area, or how much money would be spent on something like this, but theoretically, because they already have the political knowledge and the infrastructure for political websites, they should be able to do them for 1/2 to 1/3 the cost.  For candidates for statewide or Congressional, I’d recommend definitely going this route if you can afford it.  I have college buddies that started Prosper Group, who seriously rock at everything internet and are trustworthy folk as well – and that’s saying a lot since I usually don’t trust political consultants at all.  They are a couple of the very few good ones.  You get what you pay for, so it’s not going to be cheap, but it’ll be fair, and the results will be fantastic.
    Cost:  $2,000+ (this is definitely a guess – you can always call and ask).
All in all, I’d say most every candidate should have a website.  There’s really no excuse not to when you can at least have a web presence for under $100.  And as time marches on, online interaction will only become more and more important.

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Build Your Own Political Campaign Website

wordpress themes for political candidates

When I tripped on this article about WordPress themes for political candidates, I thought – holy crappin’ crap! This is fantastic!

This collection of WordPress themes is a great resource for small campaigns looking to save money on their campaign website by cutting out the expensive web designer.  Get a high school or college student to be your intern web designer and get cracking with these tools from WordPress!  Seriously, if you know a lot or a little, you can build a website using WordPress.  This site, for example, I’ve done completely on my own with WordPress and I have no formal web design training.  I guarantee you can find a young gun out there with the right stuff to put your campaign website together in a flash.

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