The SMITH Diaries Project

Ten Years Ago My Job Didn’t Exist

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

By Tate Hausman

Campaign life is brutal. I plugged away until one in the morning yesterday, got up at seven, and started all over again. 99 days left until V-day. 99. That’s a number that gives me anxiety for two reasons: one, how the FUCK can we possibly get everything done in only 99 days! and two, 99 more days of this!? Are you crazy?

Par for the course, I guess. People in my line of work all too often give up their lives for the cause. Or the crusade. Or the candidates, in this case.

Ten years ago, my job didn’t exist. Five years ago, it was a glimmer in the eyes of some thickly-glassed geeks and forward-thinking political hacks. Today, it’s a given for any campaign. But it still isn’t clear what to call me. Web Consultant? Internet Director? Technology Manager? Online Organizer? In short, I use the Internet to win political campaigns.

Right now I’m working for two fantastic, progressive candidates ? one in upstate NY, the other in the African-American suburbs of DC. I’m going to leave out their names, not because my affiliations are secret, but because I’d rather not have search engines pick up a reference to either candidate in this context. This diary is entirely my own opinion, completely unrepresentative of my campaigns or candidates, and Google shouldn’t get any ideas to the contrary.

I can tell you this — both of my candidates are incredibly exciting to work for. They both hold dear a vision of the world that I’m fighting for: a world where Americans look out for each other, where we have each others’ backs, where we fight for the common good and strive to succeed by working together, not stepping on each other to get ahead. And get this! They both have a real chance of winning. Great politics + great odds = great candidates. And I found two of them. What are the odds? (I’ll tell you ? about 40 out of the 535 memebers of Congress).

So the hours hurt, yes, and the never-ending stream of work …well, it never ends. But if Democrats win back the House? If we can check this crazy administration and lame-duck it for a few years? Then the marathon at a sprinter’s pace will be worth it. “I know that come November 8,” said one of my candidates last week, “whether we win or lose, we won’t have left anything on the field.” Amen. (He then went on to disavow sports metaphors because they’re a little too warlike, and we’re campaigning against the war. Gotta love a man with a tight message.)

And besides, after going all out in ‘03 (Huffington for CA Governor), giving it everything I had in ‘04 (Dean, then Kerry), and spending all of ‘05 gearing up for more, now I feel … seasoned? No, that’s not exactly right. My job doesn’t allow for seasoning. It’s always new, always changing. Being the Online/Tech/Data /Wait-What’s-a-Blog? Guy keeps you learning, constantly. My set of tactics and knowledge base have probably doubled since the ‘04 cycle. And I command only a fraction of the knowledge out there. There’s inherent pleasure in expanding one’s horizons, but can you ever feel in control ? even a little ? when the Web is growing and changing constantly underneath you?

Ironically, we Web strategists are the very victims of the information age, constantly swamped with brave new worlds to explore and exploit. There’s an expectation that the “Web Guys” are on top of every new trend. As if we all blog, and tag, and Digg, and cruise MySpace, and YouTube, and mash Google Maps, and download every new and trendy Web2.0 widget that comes across our path. Yeah, right. When trying to elect your guy, you’re usually forced back to the basics ? raising money, bringing in volunteers, maybe pushing a little message.

So seasoned is the wrong word. But there’s a certain calm that comes with age and experience. The interpersonal dramas of a campaign affect me much less. I take everything less personally. The big picture is easier to see, and the hurt of losing an internal strategy debate (or even just a wording choice) heals over quick. Which brings me to my current struggles.

Those of you who’ve heard me spout campaign philosophy have inevitably gotten bored of the word “distributed.” As in distributing the power, access, and technology of a campaign out to the grassroots. It’s a philosophy that’s come back into vogue with the Web, but as a theory its been rattling around idealists’ heads for centuries.

The opposite model — command and control — almost completely dominates campaigning today. Campaigns run on central authority, and the most centralized campaigns usually win. This model leaves little room for distribution of anything other than check-writing capacity. Maybe a little phone-banking or stamp-licking slips in there, but otherwise, there’s not a lot of room for the grassroots effort. There’s certainly no room for IDEAS and INNOVATION to bubble up from the grassroots.

This has been my conundrum during these current campaigns. How can I convince my superiors to embrace an untested, fairly radical model when their only blueprint for success is the old model? No campaign wants to be the trailblazer. You only get one shot, the theory goes — better stick to what we know can win. Only doomed losers take big risks. Play it safe, or play it on the bus ride home.

Few of my fellow campaigners study the worlds of network-centric advocacy and distributed campaigning and the power of the edges. They don’t get the newsletters I get. They don’t read the books I read (with one notable exception, Joe Trippi, who actually wrote one of the better books on the subject, and is working on one of the campaigns with me.) How could I possible expect to overturn decades of campaign strategy with a half-baked set of theories and unproven arsenal of tactics?

So, in the end, it’s back to 1.0 uses of the Web — fundraising, volunteer recruiting, and maybe an online ad campaign. And I can’t complain, because I’m still learning, and more importantly, my candidates have damn good shots at actually winning. After all, that’s what counts in the end, regardless of process. Period. (Right?)

Up Next: Iris & Dot, the Faceless Volunteers

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