Thursday, April 26, 2007

Playing "Gotcha" with Campaign Contributions

OK, so maybe I'm being a bit of an apologist for the campaign fundraising process, but I have to say that I'm a little irritated by the story in Wired magazine about how recent web mashups are turning citizens into Washington's newest watchdogs.

Before you ask, a "mash up" is an application that allows the user to take information from a variety of disparate data sources and, well, mash them together. In the case of political / money mashups, the purveyors are pulling information on financing and information on votes -- and drawing their own conclusions.

The article starts with the story of MapLight, which put together an interesting report showing that in a debate on legislaton to ban clear-cutting, the environmental community gave less in contributions to elected officials than those opposed to the legislation (a wide range of chambers of commerce, timber interests and the like). The bill was defeated.

Gotcha! The conclusion immediately drawn is that the money was what influenced the vote. And yet, to my knowledge, the report didn't review other factors that might have had some influence -- like who lives in which Assembly district, how many coalition members stood on each side of the issue, what the messages were or whether the group that won the vote engaged in other activity, such as estensive grassroots and grasstops lobbying.

See, anyone doing basic credible analysis should know that the existence of a "correlation" between two things does not automatically mean there is a cause and effect relationship. Consider the argument that the disciples of the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" make in noting that global warming and hurricanes have increased while the number of pirates in the world has decreased: the cause and effect here is clear -- pirates have kept natural disasters at bay.

Plus, one thing that people seem to be glossing over in this particular case (the California vote, not the pirates) is the fact that the opponents actually contributed MORE to those legislators who voted "yes" than the other side! Clearly their money wasn't very influential in that case. Or perhaps those were just the incorruptible members.

Believe me, I'm not a fan of our campaign financing process. I'm not a fundraiser nor would I ever want to be one. I did, however, work for several different members of Congress and I can tell you that the votes of members of Congress are influenced by a thousand different things, from what the Congressman's friends say to how other members of the party are voting to whether the Congressman had lunch that day.

The one common denominator though -- the thing they ask for before every single vote -- is "what are my consituents back home saying?" The power of constituency is a power everyone has. Unfortunately, that's the power some people aren't willing to use because they don't realize just how influential they can be, without a check in hand.

Bringing Advocacy to the Table

I’ve been told not to discuss politics at the dinner table. But what happens when the political discussion is about my dinner table, or at least what’s on it?

The Farm Bill, which is up for review this year, will bring the issue of what our country eats and how that food is grown to the Hill. Congress has started hearings this week, and it’s expected that the big decisions will be made in May and June.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes in the New York Times that in the past, the Farm Bill hasn’t garnered much attention outside of the farm states. But he thinks this year is different; “The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices.”

And even more than that, Americans in general are starting to get fed up with how we’re being fed. I bet I’m not the only one who’s tired of paying more for an apple than I would pay for a candy bar; who’s concerned about the chemicals in her salad and who’s appalled by the food she sees served to our children at school.

That rule about politics at the dinner table? Old news. Americans are ready to be invovled in the process that determines what they eat, and I’m guessing that this year, the Farm Bill will be big news for our country with big changes for our bellies.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The "Idol-ization" of American Politics

I've always thought that American Idol would be a good model for our presidential election process. Really. In the last several seasons, there are have been more votes cast for American Idol contestants than are normally seen in a non-presidential year election. OK, so some of those are multiple votes from the same people. In fact, I confess to having voted at least 50 times for Bo Bice in the great Bo / Carrie showdown of 2004 -- I'm still not sure what it feels like to vote for a winner on Idol.

Well, the good news is that MySpace and Mark Burnett (known by some as the "father" of reality television), are teaming up to present a program on MySpace/YouTube called "Independent." The guist is that contestants will submit audition videos on YouTube outlining why that should be president. My Space users and TV viewers will choose from among those candidates and each week, viewers will vote on new missions that players much accomplish related to issues raised by the MySpace community.

The winner will earn $1 million to spend on launching a new political party, donating to a political cause or entering the US presidential race -- which should last them 1/2 week :). To date, it's the most pop-culture application of "people-powered politics" I've seen. For another approach, check out the website U4prez

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The One Place Politicians Aren't Seeking Cash

During campaign season, the one thing we always expect of our politicians is that they will ask for, beg for and/or plead for money. This doesn't make them bad people -- it's a necessity of our rather expensive system of campaigning. Those who succeeed in raising funds in creative (but, of course, LEGAL) ways usually succeed in winning the election.

Why, then, aren't candidates and parties doing more to raise funds online? I don't mean the traditional sort of "online contribution" module anyone worth their seat has on their websites. Rather, I'm talking about some of the online advertising and co-branding approaches that might serve to bring cash into campaign coffers.

Take the example of the recently announced online presidential debates being cohosted by Yahoo, the Huffington Post and Slate. The debate being touted as an opportunity to engage the new generation of younger voters who spend so much of their time online. Nothing wrong with that at all -- it's a noble goal.

That said, someone's going to make some money off of the advertising of this debate. One of the likely candidates is Google through the AdWords program. Others will gain thousands of dollars worth of brand recognition and good will. Should some of those financial gains go to the candidates who are actually making this online event possible? Just a thought...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Surprise! Politicians Like to Talk AT You, Not WITH You

Reuters has an interesting article on Presidential candidates and their use of Web 2.0 techniques ("Politicians Falls Behind in Online Race.") In it, they make a couple interesting points about how politicians are using the Internet.

First of all, while some campaigns are using Facebook, MySpace and other social networking tools to get their messages out, they aren't using these tools to engage in a meaningful dialogue. In some cases, it seems as though they see this as just another form of mass communication. As the article notes ". . . there is a sense it is mostly one-way traffice -- from "them" to "us" and analysts say politicians need to expand their online ambitions towards interactivity and user-generated content."

Along these lines, it seems that once the campaign is over, all efforts at interactivity and creativity go out the window once the candidate becomes an actual elected official. Blogs, video-sharing, networks and other conversation starters online simply aren't used by many electeds. When they are, as is the case with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has posted a "petition gathering" tool on his site, it is seen as inelegant pandering to a powerful portion of the electorate.

The good news is that some people still see hope -- especially for those politicians who understand that these tools should be used to engage citizens rather than merely talk at them. Citizens expect to be able to interact, and if government doesn't provide that opportunity, someone else will.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Air Congress (or hot air congress?)

If you just can't get enough of the eloquent words of our politicians, check out Air Congress, which highlights speeches, podcast and other oral ruminations of members of Congress. There's also an overview of the various blogs that cover Washington, DC as well as a couple notes about upcoming events.

If you're curious which members of Congress are actually doing podcasts, the site includes a great list. Some of them may surprise you -- it's not just the new "young turks." I was surprised and pleased to see that Chairman Dingell, the longest serving member of the House is posting a weekly podcast. How cool is that?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Burst Media Report on Web in 2008 Election

Burst Media recently surveyed 2100 Internet users identified as "likely to vote" regarding how they intend to use the Internet to make decisions in the 2008 election. One fourth cited the internet as the best place to research positions and general election issues -- more than TV, newspapers, radios, magazines or direct mail.

Perhaps most interesting, those age groups that are traditionally seen as not "internet-friendly" were generally just as likely to get their information from an online source as from a newspaper. There were only a few tenths of a percent difference between the internet and newspapers as the prefered source for the 45-54 agre group and the 55+ age group.

In addition, over 50% indicated that they would watch a video clip on a candidate's website regarding his or her position on the issues. 25% of voters (mostly the younger crowd) would also be willing to download a podcast. And for you Association-types out there, know that about 30-percent of those surveyed have visited issue advocacy sites!

Check Burst Media's site for more information on the report.

Friday, April 06, 2007

DIY Political Ads

The Do-It-Yourself (DIY) trend has finally come to political ads.

Take Phil de Vellis. He created the “Vote Different Ad,” which has been more aptly labeled “Hillary 1984” and has received more than 1 million hits on YouTube.

The ad uses a clip from Hillary Clinton’s announcement video on top of the Apple Ad from the 1984 Superbowl. And it ends with the Apple logo transformed into an O; O for Obama.

Powerful. Creative. Completely citizen driven. And driving the campaign directors crazy.

Simon Rosenberg, president of the Washington-based New Democrat Network, says, “The ad is proof that ‘anybody can do powerful emotional ads ... and the campaigns are no longer in control.’"

Never before has there been such an affordable and easy way for people to express themselves. The Internet has created a forum where money isn't the deciding factor. Now, the major limitations are creativity, time and a desire to have your voice heard. And I bet there are plenty of people out there who can, and now will, summon up the necessary ingredients to make political ads.

Does anyone else think this is going to be a very interesting campaign season?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Forget New Hampshire or Iowa...

...Presidential candidates should be spending their next several months in MySpace, where an online presidential primary vote will be held January 1st and 2nd. Sure, you won't get any votes for the electoral college, but the winner will get a whole lot of bragging rights.

And why not? If MySpace were a country, based on population it would be the 11th largest in the world. That's a pretty influential group of people. Now, some are arguing that the MySpace vote could be easily manipulated: people could vote multiple times or people to young to vote "offline" might actually participate.

Nevertheless, I think campaigns should take this seriously, but not because the MySpace vote will tell them much about the sentiments of the population at large. They should think of it as a giant focus group for campaigns on their position with the social networking crowd, arguably one of the most influential blocs of voters.

Sure, it can be gamed in a varity of ways, and, again, no one should imagine that the outcome will accurately reflect all of America. But it might somewhat accuratelly reflect who understands Web 2.0, and that's a pretty important criteria for the Presidency, in my opinion.