Zach Exley says software doesn’t win elections

Caught over at PoliticalWire, I see that Zach Exley says that:

“The difference between the approach of the left in general, and the Republicans, is that the left was more interested in just putting cool software up. The idea was to put up the tools and let people use them.”

He derided net evangelists who believed that the answer was ‘let’s come up with new ways of talking!’

“The belief was ‘let’s get 5,000 people out there and they’ll talk to each other. but to put a president in office we need to get people organized and trained.” In the end, he said, a field organization was far more valuable than blog blather.

Um, well sure, Zach. But anyone who tries to claim that we lost the election in November because we focused too much on the technology, well, I’m just not seeing it. I mean, that’s a nice convenient excuse, but doesn’t it overlook the fact that for the first time in recent memory, the Democrats outraised Republicans, more people voted for Kerry than all but one other candidate in history, and more contributors donated to political campaigns than ever before? Don’t we think the tech might have helped just a bit with that?

The Democrats lost because we had a weaker message, less discipline, and almost no coordination between the various levels of the party. I’m the chair of my local Democratic Party, yet have never so much as received a form letter from the chair of the state party, let alone from the DNC. John Kerry rescued his campaign in October during the Iowa primaries by firing his campaign manager and reorganizing a fractured staff. Factions grew once again over the summer, and Kerry didn’t take control — leading to an unfortunately predictable result. (Contrasted with the Republicans’ discipline on message, I think the conclusions are easy to draw.

When Zach says that we need organization, he’s right. But to suggest that the technology can’t improve the organizational abilities flies in the face of what we did well this cycle, not to mention it’s laughably ignorant of where things are heading. (When Disney is encouraging grandparents to download social networking software to plan family vacations, it’s a safe bet that online organizing to improve political organizing just might take hold…)

Zach’s wrong when he suggests the left was more focused on building the tools than using them. Are there some corners where a few people just wanted to play with cool tools? Sure. But was that the focus of the entire party? Not by a long shot. And to lay the 2004 loss at the technology’s feet seems ridiculous on its face.

(Big caveat: The Register’s Orlowski — the reporter on this story — is notoriously anti-blog and a bit of a rabble-rouser, so I’m more than happy to be corrected on the substance of Exley’s comments…)

13 responses to “Zach Exley says software doesn’t win elections”

  1. The Democrats lost because we had a weaker message, less discipline, and almost no coordination between the various levels of the party.“Or because there are more Americans that believed George W. Bush is the better man for the job. Plain and simple.

  2. Yeah, Jason, I don't really dispute that. But since Zach's focus was on the packaging and messaging, I chose to argue on those terms as well.The question is this: if the Democrats had exercised better discipline, better coordination, and not subjected voters to Kerry's always-evolving nuanced messages… would the gap have been narrower? Could a Democrat have won? I think the answer is almost certainly yes to the former, and the latter is definitely a possibility.All hypothetical, and I'm not disputing the results or the aftermath. But as the Democrats look ahead to our next chair, reevaluate what we need to do better in order to win at local, state and national levels – I think these are the critical issues. I don't think Exley really added to the discussion (who's disputing that better organization can help win elections?).That said, good candidates help, too…

  3. But I don't think the nuance was just a result of Kerry. I wrote about this last year that I think the Democrats are a victim of their own success. The Democrats have spent the last few decades carving up Americans into special interest groups, each with their own entitlements and agendas. Now there are so many groups, the Democrats have to dance around their promises to cater to each and it comes off as nuance after nuance. Similar to Kerry campaigning to the auto workers in Detroit (historical Dem support) about his SUVs… then having to “nuance” his campaigning in California in front of the environmental groups.I think the Dems miscontrue true conservative values as simply “close-minded intolerance” but fail to realize “conservative values” isn't just “bible thumping, gay-hating, race-baiting, redneckery” but slices across all socio-economic groups and infiltrates some groups as a whole and other groups in part… So while Dems focus on groups in whole, they're failing to see parts of those groups are still non-convertible, even if they win the support of the so-called leadership.

  4. “The Democrats have spent the last few decades carving up Americans into special interest groups, each with their own entitlements and agendas. Now there are so many groups, the Democrats have to dance around their promises to cater to each and it comes off as nuance after nuance.”The GOP has done this too – and now that they are in power it will get worse (which may tell you more about “cause and effect” than party label). While I'd have to think about it more (and maybe be given proof) it is possible that the Democrats are prone to do this to a greater extent (i.e. they have more groups because of the nature of being a Democrat). That would be an interesting perspective, and possibly a useful strategic insight (i.e. not abandon Democratic groups, but focus on a 'strategic handful' of demographics in our message (which a lot of people are saying anyway) – I like national healthcare and Social Security as issues that have pretty universal appeal).”I think the Dems miscontrue true conservative values [which slice] across all socio-economic groups and [infiltrate] some groups as a whole and other groups in part… So while Dems focus on groups in whole, they're failing to see parts of those groups are still non-convertible, even if they win the support of the so-called leadership.”The same could be said (substituting different issues/positions) of liberal values (environmental conservation, etc.). I don't see any useful distinction here – unless your argument is about “degree” instead of “kind.” I'd have to be shown the difference in degree in this case, because I am skeptical of the argument's validity – and it certainly would be a difficult proof either way.

  5. FWIW…In the DuPage context the problem I found when reaching out to the groups who are traditionally supportive of Democratic candidates is that the rank and file are not necessarily in line with the group leadership. As a simplified example: Many times during my campaign I ran into this situation. I would knock on the door to a home that had vehicles parked in the driveway displaying “Union Proud” bumper stickers. Those people were more likely to not speak to me or take literature from my volunteers, than ones who drove H2's and wore fur coats. This flies in the face of traditional thought, and led me to believe that every person is worth my time once. One of the basic reasons the Democratic message does not work here is that it requires sacrifice. Conservatives have a much easier doctrine to digest. Less personal responsibility, less liability, and one keeps more control over their sphere of influence. The Democratic doctrine require one to sacrifice control over some personal wealth (big issue in DuPage), to sacrifice control over their neighbors' activities, and to accept responsibility for their actions. Our missions as Democrats, or Progressives, or whatever sub-group one identifies them self with, is to help people understand that living in a civilized nation not only takes work and sacrifice, but is worth the trouble.Oh yeah…better organization would help. However, thanks to the continued hard work of people like Rick, Hiram, Henk, and Freedman…we are getting closer.

  6. I think the comment about technology is covering up their fear. It's standard practice to discount that which we don't understand yet can see is effective.It goes a long way towards understanding the fear of science prevalent in the ultra conservative/fundamentalists camp.

  7. Rob, good points. We do have a better message, but have done a doggone terrible job articulating it. The bloated, stinking mass of corpulent pus that is American conservatism is ready to go back to the sewer. More and more Americans are tuning out of the corporate news media that spews conservative talking points. Technology (yes, including blogs) means that millions of us realize we DO have a voice. This is new, and with anything new, it will take a little time to catch on. The people reading this blog and others are on the cutting edge. Sorry for venting, but the future belongs to us, not the Repubs.

  8. The true pioneer of raising money on the Internet was John McCain in 2000. I can only image even without Trippi; we still would have seen this level of fundraising due to the hatred of Bush by the base. The technology had already been tested and proven by 2004. “The Democrats lost because we had a weaker message, less discipline, and almost no coordination between the various levels of the party.”I absolutely agree with this assessment, we lack infrastructure as a Party and we have zero discipline. Dems love to”camp out” in our issue groups and bitch if people don't pay enough attention to us. On message… This is always more difficult for Democrats since we have more factions to represent. But the fact remains, we had no message on national security and no matter how many people disagreed with the Iraq war, the American people trusted the “cowboy” despite his screwups versus what they viewed as the peacenik party. “And to lay the 2004 loss at the technology's feet seems ridiculous on its face.”I didn't see Exley say this all. He merely voiced frustration at those who believe technology can somehow make up for organizational difficencies. The Kerry grassroots in Chicagoland made contributions on a national scale; the main being putting busloads of volunteers in Wisconsin for eight weeks straight. To a large degree, we went off-line to accomplish the major lifting. Technology will evolve, and organizations will evolve as a result. However there was no silver bullet technology in 2004 the Kerry campaign could have used to win the election.

  9. More and more Americans are tuning out of the corporate news media that spews conservative talking points.“This is so ridiculous, it's laughable. Besides the completely absurd assertion that American media is conservative, the comment that Americans are tuning out conservative outlets ignores the statistics on FoxNews, talk radio, book purchases, etc.

  10. Jason, go back to kicking puppies. The only thing laughable is you. Rick and Hiram are pretty sharp people, so they let fools like you go. I won't. If you want a discussion, I suggest you drop by Kos or Atrios where you can get more feedback.

  11. Now now, I actually think of Jason as a good friend, and choose to engage him on issues where we have legitimate disagreements (and there are plenty). My issue is not with those whose beliefs don't match up perfectly with mine, it's with those who are so cynical (or self-serving) that they don't have the courage of their convictions and instead play the system for their own benefit. (For the record, there are just as many on the left that fit that description as there are on the right.)Government has a role in our society. I see the government's role in a broader and larger context than Jason does, and that's OK. I think I'm right, but I admire the commitment Jason's made to his cause and am always interested in challenging both of our positions.Let's keep the discourse here civil.–Rick

  12. Point taken, since it's your blog. However, you are incorrect that there are as many on the left that would game the system. Go to Opensecrets and see where the corporate money is going. Far, far more is going to the repubs.

  13. Well, that's an anomaly mostly explained by the Republican dominance of all three branches of government, and corporations' tendency to give disproportionately to incumbents. Dial the clock back 10 years and the money was split fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.I predict that we'll see a bit more parity in the next few years, as the fundraising equilibrium that was struck in 2004 will help the Dems get closer to Republicans in actual dollars raised.

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