Movements versus campaigns and parties

Patrick Ruffini argues that the GOP has the right model for online activism:

I can sing chapter and verse on why our model was better. Lateral communications (or community building amongst supporters) is a worthwhile goal in itself, but often gets confused with what it takes to do GOTV in the final days of an election. That’s when you want a unified message, and you don’t want canvassers coming up with their own talking points. The end result of that strategy is Dean in Iowa.

I am torn on this question. On the one hand, the GOP online effort did convert better to GOTV, and winning the 2004 election. But there is another question about long-term investment. Indeed, the underlying question is apples and oranges. Campaigns versus movements.

In 2005, the Dean list and community was converted into an unprecedented grassroots candidacy for DNC chair. And the Deaniacs took over state parties and county parties around the country. The Deaniacs lost the 2004 primary campaign but may yet transform their party over the long-term. That’s a movement, not one campaign. And, over the long-term, movements have a lot more power. In short, the online left is solving a different problem than the Bush campaign was. The online left is trying to change their party, not elect candidates.

Now look at what Patrick says:

Did we sustain it? Well, that’s a fair question. The Bush list did continue on at the RNC. We did parties. We activated the base on key issues. That’s a greater continuity of effort than we saw on the other side. Terry McAuliffe famously boasted of wanting to bring all the Democrat candidate email lists in-house to the DNC. In the end, not one obliged, not even John Kerry. He kept his own list, blasted to it regularly during the 2006 elections, and as Chris Cillizza has been fond of harping on, that 3 million list alone was probably the only reason he could be considered viable for 2008.

MoveOn and Dean for America, rebranded as Democracy for America, did continue to activate with their 3m list. And they don’t have to take orders from the party. To them, candidates are a way of effecting policy changes, not the objective in-and-of-themselves, like they are for a party committee. Whatever candidate we nominate in 2008 is going to have a different coalition. Will the Generation Joshua guys show up for a Rudy Giuliani, a John McCain, or a Mitt Romney? I kinda doubt it.

I continue to believe that the right way to understand the online left is not as a party, but as a movement. Their historical antecedent is the New Right, using direct mail, the new technology of the day, to raise money and deliver message. In essence, the new technology is being used to expand the power and size of a part of the coalition that hasn’t had a seat at the table of the Democratic Party. For example, the Rock-the-Vote voter registration engine:

What’s happening this cycle could be ground-breaking, in that Rock the Vote is building a voter registration engine with an API anyone can innovate on top of.  Groups and individuals will be able to capture the number of people they register, the data of the people they register, and the contact information of those they register.  This means that, unlike with a standard voter registration download form, the person who asked you to register, presumably someone you trust, will be reminding you to vote.  That’s a big deal.  They will also be able to get credit for registering you to vote, since the voter engine will let people see how many people have registered through a page.  It’ll be kind of like Actblue, for voter registration.

This doesn’t help parties. Parties have voter registration lists. They keep them (kind of) up to date. This helps the interest groups, outside organizations, and movements.

The online left is a movement to reinvent and renew the Democratic party. The question for the GOP is whether we need something similar. A newly organized coalition, etc. I think that the answer is "yes." Perhaps Patrick disagrees with me?