Short People for Obama

The New York Times’ “The Measure of a President” provides visual proof that shorter candidates suffer a remarkable handicap in winning the Presidency. Part of the blame surely lies with the media, which regularly taints their coverage with heightist phrases like “Despite his diminutive stature…” And don’t get started with the term “scrappy.”

It is little wonder that short people are tempted to vote for John McCain, at 5’7″ the shortest major party nominee since 1900. We are outraged by the heightism and discrimination spread by the mainstream media, and we are ready to fight back.

Yet we cannot allow our own justifiable outrage cloud our vision. George W. Bush beat a taller opponent in both 2000 and 2004, and look where our country is now. The last candidate to accomplish this feat was Richard Nixon in 1968 — enough said. Presidents Bush and Nixon were an embarrassment to the short community, and John McCain’s sadly stereotypical Napoleonic tendencies will do us little good in combating societal prejudice.

We look forward to a competent and qualified candidate of shorter stature who will earn our support. Change is coming: we already have one of the shortest Speakers of the House in recent history. Until that time, I am proud to be a Short Person for Obama.

CIO Insight on Obama technology

Ed Cone of CIO Insight has published a series, “How the Obama Campaign is Using Technology to Change Elections on the Ground.” (Big ups to Baratunde for the tip). There’s a few tidbits here and there worth repeating:

“It’s the difference between open and closed source.” — Cyrus Krohn, director of the eCampain division of the Republican National Committee. Presumably, Obama = open source. I wonder if Krohn sees that as positive, negative or neutral? Certainly, my colleagues would agree that open source is a massive positive.

The Ground Game: Open Source vs Closed“. This article largely discusses minimally-supported local teams and (or “MyBO” for short). Cone observes, “The Republican’s answer to the vaunted website, known as McCainSpace, did not go live until August, and the McCain campaign is generally seen as lagging on the technology and organizational fronts.” The article confirms that the Republicans continue to equate the Internet with “microtargeting” marketing and that the Obama campaign has “leapfrogged” them.

Local Area Networks: How the Obama Campaign Works on the Ground” describes the pyramid-shaped MyBO system: users at the base of the pyramid have relatively fewer options than those at the top, which distinguishes MyBO from, for example, Facebook. Nonetheless, local volunteers can command teams of other volunteers to undertake impressive amounts of critical work like registering, identifying, and persuading voters. For anyone familiar with GOTV campaigns (if not, here’s my GOTV primer), what’s radically new is the possibility for such teams to self-organize, with minimal supervision from the campaign. This allows the campaign to aggressively leverage its paid organizing staff. The “force multiplier” power of good technology skews even further Obama’s decided ground-game advantage.

Connecting the Compaign: How the Democrats Built Their Network” describes the Voter Activation Network (VAN) system, headquartered not too far from where I am, that has been the data backbone of the DNC. (All of the Democratic candidates had access to VAN during the primaries, in the interest of growing the pie for everyone, thought in the heat of battle that did lead to frictions that had to be resolved by segregating the data out. So here the commons lost some ground to self-interest). Any organizer, however technology-crippled, will tell you that databases are the key to winning campaigns. (Back in the day, they would use huge stacks of index cards and the like). Some key insights about social networking:

“Facebook is great for broadcasting yourself to friends, but it’s not very action oriented. There are few features at MyBO for broadcasting yourself in the abstract–instead it’s geared to getting people to take action.” [Jascha Franklin-Hodge of Blue State Digital]. In essence, MyBO redirects the energy of social networkers to specific, campaign-oriented tasks, such as canvassing neighborhoods. Ruffini [Bush-Cheney 2004 webmaster] agrees that the system has “morphed into a very useful tool.” A killer application, he says, is the group-building feature, which allows people to create connections to potential voters in their area, rather than just talking about their personal views of the campaign as they might on Facebook.

Going Mobile: Texting and Twittering in the New Ground Game” identifies the VP selection text-message signup as a “watershed moment” for the campaign. It was a great way to collect thousands of phone numbers that are normally very difficult to acquire. Yet the technology also appears to be immature, with many who signed up failing to get the text message, as well as expensive.

Hypercharging traditional organizing with YouTube

Compare the YouTube pages of the McCain and Obama campaigns, and you’ll also get a glimpse of how very different their strategies are. Both feature 30- and 60-second advertisements, but Obama also offers a wide range of other pieces that include speeches and rallies, calls to action, and, increasingly, videos that support local grassroots efforts.

In other words, McCain’s 300 videos are an extension of his marketing — the “air war.” Obama’s 1,428 videos extend both his “air war” and his “ground war.” Given the Obama campaign’s relatively extensive investment and innovation in this area, we can get a glimpse of the state-of-the-art in weaving together new media and traditional organizing.

I would divvy up the Obama YouTube videos into the following categories:

  1. Advertisements. Frankly, I find these boring transplants from another medium (TV), but some are highly-watched. The long pieces are made-for-Web. Example from McCain: “Chicago documentary,” which attacks Barack Obama as complacent on Latino issues.
  2. “Raw” footage. Videos of Obama, Biden, or surrogates stumping and, in many, audience reaction. These can be quite long, and some are also (surprisingly) well-watched. Example: “A More Perfect Union” a/k/a Obama’s “race speech” (almost 5 million views).
  3. Calls to action. A direct appeal to the viewer to go and do something. Recently, this has focused on registering, voting, and volunteering. Examples: “Come to Ohio,” which invites viewers to head over to volunteer in Ohio; “Vote Early in Ohio,” which asks Ohio citizens to register and vote early.
  4. Instructional video. A simple explanation of how to do something to help the campaign. These recently started showing up. This category blurs a bit with #3, as these pieces are also persuasive. Example: “Phonebanking 101.”

(None of this includes the unofficial videos that are created outside the campaigns, the most famous of which is probably the “Yes we can” music video. More on those media here.)

For traditional grassroots organizers, videos of type 3 and 4 are worth studying. One of the key weaknesses of new media are their apparent inefficacy in getting people to do things in the real world. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom after the collapse of the Dean campaign in 2004. Whether these videos, by themselves, convince people to go and cast an early vote in Ohio remains to be seen.

But these videos do not operate by themselves; rather, it’s pretty clear that some are intended to be wrapped into a traditional grassroots campaign. For example, the “Phonebanking 101” video could be used to help recruit volunteers for a phonebank as well as to train them once they’ve shown up. In other words, these media work hand-in-hand with other tactics — which is quite different than mass-market advertising. Thus, while you might normally measure the effectiveness of a YouTube video by the number of hits it gets, it would be wrong to conclude that the “Color By Numbers” advertisement (11,500 views one day after it was posted) is more useful and successful than the “Come to Colorado” piece (2,964 views over the same period). “Color by Numbers,” at best, might persuade a few people to not vote for McCain (or strengthen their resolve for Obama). The “Come to Colorado” video, by contrast, might persuade people to drive over to volunteer and, in turn, reach out to hundreds, maybe thousands, of voters.

More on how these videos are made, and the significance of that production strategy for grassroots organizing, to come…

Lydia Lowe doesn’t speak for me

I don’t live in the Second Suffolk District, where a heated battle is underway between incumbent State Senator Diane Wilkerson and challenger Sonia Chang-Diaz, the challenger who won the Democratic nomination last week. I have no standing to evaluate whether Wilkerson or Chang-Diaz is more capable of representing that District’s needs.

However, as a Chinese-American, I do feel strongly disserved by the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, Lydia Lowe, who is quoted in the Bay State Banner as saying, “I think progressive whites don’t care about what people of color want or who they see as their leaders.”

This is a disgraceful show of divisive 70s-style racial politics that we simply don’t need at this moment in history. Progressive (and not-so-progressive) whites — indeed people of all races — have shown that they do care about other people, of other races. I fundamentally and profoundly disagree with the sentiment that progressive whites are selling out their non-white brethren. If anything, history has repeatedly shown us that progressive whites have been essential to the advancement of so many issues of importance to minorities, whether civil rights, affirmative action, or immigration reform.

Like a certain black pastor who recently received nationwide notoriety, Lydia Lowe’s years of fighting for the interests of Chinatown and the Chinese-American community may have, at the same time, given her a sadly frozen view of race relations. Diane Wilkerson’s own preferred candidate for President chastised his former pastor: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made… But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change.”

The idea that whites in Jamaica Plain are selling out their non-white neighbors because of race is reprehensible and disgusting. Lydia Lowe and her organization may win a tactical victory if her candidate returns to the Senate. But by playing the race card — against a woman who’s mixed white, Latina, and Chinese, no less — she’ll be hurting the long-term interests of her own constituency, pushing away the very people who have been a cornerstone of political success any time minorities have tried to attain success beyond our own boundaries.