4 unfinished thoughts on Bernie Sanders' online campaign

The US primaries are wrapping up and it's been an...interesting campaign season on both sides. Bernie Sanders' online campaign, as much as you can attribute it to him, has been fascinating to watch. I'm still not sure what my final thoughts are on what went right and what went wrong but here's what's been floating around my head at this point.

Before I dive in I'll recommend this article from Communicopia. I'm still digesting it and sorting out what it means in the long run and which of these lessons should be absorbed but it definitely is an interesting thought-piece.

While the online aspect of the campaign is impressive it's nothing new. What we see today from Sanders supporters online is a continuation, and to be fair an amplification, of what happened with Obama and even back through to Howard Dean's primary campaign and to an extent Jessie Ventura's run for Governor back in 1998. If you want to put it in historical context I recommend The Revolution Will Not be Televised by Joe Trippi (Gil Scott-Heron is pretty amazing too). They do the grassroots and fundraising better without a doubt but definitely seem to be lacking the data-driven approach of Obama. Though that was something that went into full gear in his Presidential runs.

There's an amazing, grassroots driven phonebanking (and facebanking) engine. If you want to say something about the Sanders' campaign it's that they run an amazing digital campaign. There's some ridiculously intricate procedures up for phone and online campaigning for volunteers. In terms of phonebanking there's software that allows volunteers to contribute from anywhere they have access to a phone. They've managed to coordinate enough to call tens of thousands of people a day. They're also really good at encouraging each other and calling attention to the volunteer superstars.

For Facebook they've got tutorials on how to reach out to friends of friends to maximize impact. This is something I could see being adapted for a bunch of different campaigns.

All-in-all this is what I'm most impressed with I think. It's giving the supporters the tools to help and the agency to engage, which will raise their investment in the campaign.

...but it may just be busy work. Phonebanking is, counter to what many people think, a tool to mobilize your supporters rather than change minds. If you look at one of the scripts for the Sanders' campaign you can see that they end the call as soon as you indicate you're a hard sell. If it's a get out the vote tool then is it a good use of time? The book Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout looked at the issue and says that you can expect one vote for every 35 calls made. This study (PDF) disagrees and says that phone calls, particularly clearly scripted ones, can actually be detrimental. I suppose though that it may be more of a tool to increase investment of the people making the calls more so than the end result of the calls. Nothing wrong with that.

At what point does enthusiasm become detrimental? If you aren't a diehard Sanders supporter then some corners of the internet may have been a living hell for the last few months. There's a certain vein of Sanders supporters that are very enthusiastic and have a skewed view of politics and the political process and can generally be, to put it bluntly, overbearing. That enthusiasm can lead to some mis-thought attempts at campaigning.

Now, this isn't unique to Sanders. Trump has the same thing going on right now (though Poe's Law may be in effect there to some degree). Ron Paul was the same thing back in the day too. I assume Obama supporters were just as bad as well, but I was much more on that train so I probably didn't notice it as much. In any case, it's a turn off for people who are on the fence and perhaps detrimental in the long run. Paul Krugman recently argued that this echo chamber is even having a detrimental effect on the candidate himself and he does have a point; the Tea Party should have served as a warning and not a model. Is enthusiasm something that supporters should try to moderate when evangelizing? I honestly don't know.