In July 2003 Vice President Dick Cheney was in Columbia, South Carolina for a fancy sit-down lunch with 150 big-money donors willing to kick in the maximum $2,000 to the reelection campaign of Cheney and President George W. Bush. Dick Cheney was to raise $250,000 from this exclusive group of black-tie diners in one afternoon. This would be an ordinary event for any campaign and lost in the pages of history, but this fundraiser is remembered for another reason. And that reason can best be symbolized in the form of a turkey sandwich.
Prior to the Cheney fundraiser, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean were gathered online at the Dean’s Blog for America trying to figure out ways that the campaign could continue its small donor driven campaign fundraising success. One idea floated about was for the campaign to try and match the Cheney fundraiser dollar-for-dollar in online donations. The day of Cheney’s fundraiser the campaign posted a picture of Dean, eating a turkey sandwich while blogging, on their site asking supporters to chip in what they could to match the black-tie Cheney event. By 12:30 the next day the campaign had raised over $500,000, or twice as much as the Cheney event netted.
This story about a turkey sandwich shows the essence of how Web-centered politics change the equation in communications and outcomes in campaigns. As Dean himself said, “We had people whose job it was to read the blogs for feedback and ideas and we developed a feedback loop that allowed us to do these incredible events. The two-way conversation was key – you can’t just talk, you also need to listen.” After the impressive money haul pulled in by the Ron Paul for President campaign on November 5th, an idea sprung by campaign supporters and subsequently embraced by the Paul campaign, I decided to check out what on earth was going on in this decentralized Web-based campaign. My first stop was Ron Paul Forums where I found over 400 people currently viewing the Grassroots Central sub-forum.
I originally stumbled into the Ron Paul Forums when I began writing this post. Googling around for the image of Dean eating the turkey sandwich I saw a link to the RP Forum. The discussion thread, this was from July 2007, began with a retelling of the turkey sandwich story and then continued to ask what ideas the supporters could contribute to the campaign. One of the first suggestions happened to be that the campaign post all campaign contributions in real-time on the front page of their Web site. The poster wrote, "A ticker on www.ronpaul2008.com that shows the ammount that he’s raised is a must, especially in demonstrating that he actually has a good chance at winning and that your donations aren’t just a waste. I could see his donations sky rocketing with this." I had stumbled across another turkey sandwich. Everyone knows by now that Paul adopted this idea to show his campaign contributions as they were coming in on his Web site and everyone knows about the supporter generated money-bomb that brought in $4.3 million on November 5th. These ideas were both pulled from the Paul supporter community.
The Ron Paul online community is incredibly lively and filled with ideas about how to best use the fund raising power of the community to raise the profile of the little known Texas congressman. While November 5th, chosen to coincide with Guy Fawkes Day, is the most well known of these "money bomb" events where the community organizes a mass fund raising event it is not and will not be the only one. November 11th was intended to be another million dollar fund raising day but topped out at $200-250,000. The Paul community chose Veteran’s Day weekend as a "money bomb" day to highlight that the anti-war Paul has received more contributions from active U.S. military than any other candidate. The next day on the community organized fund raising schedule is set for December 16th in commemoration of the Boston Tea Party. Supporters talk of raising anywhere from another $4 million to upwards of $10 million on this day. T-Shirts are being made, Web sites created, and a massive amount of energy is being expended by a groups of individuals who are not on a campaign payroll to raise as much money as possible and bring more people into what they consider to be the "Ron Paul Revolution".
In many ways the tales of turkey sandwiches and Guy Fawkes Day fund raisers explain a shift in our politics that goes beyond the amount a campaign can raise from its supporters. The changing nature of technology has allowed information to flow in multiple directions at once allowing unburdened access to communication channels to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. Supporters, who may well be experts in a particular field or have lived the problems that politicians discussed, can offer much more than financial support or ideas about how to increase financial support. They can offer a way to deal with and control information.
The problem of information has been one of the greatest problems facing politicians and the government since the dawn of the industrial age. How do we deal with all these issues; all this information? No one person can read every single bill introduced in Congress and no one person can write every policy statement issued for a campaign. Politicians rely heavily on their staff to read bills, write opinions, create policy positions, and hone messaging. Certainly, we as voters accept this as fact and understand that our politicians are both responsible for the decisions of their staff, as they will ultimately sign off on these decisions, and reliant on the talent and wisdom of those that they employ. By tapping into the creativity and experience of citizens, constituents, communities of interest, and experts through networked communication technology the politician can distribute the burden of information by decentralizing their information consumption operation. Think of it like a wrestler falling with every part of her body hitting the mat as opposed to landing on her side or shoulders. There is a significantly reduced risk of injury when the impact is distributed through the body instead of one part, the side or shoulders, taking the full impact. Distributing information consumption allows more information to be consumed at a lower cost and with added benefits of insight that might otherwise would have been absent.
Ron Paul and Howard Dean are both examples of politicians that relied not only on the votes and money of their supporters, but their ideas and creative energies. This same wealth of knowledge and experience can be tapped for legislative purposes, as indicated in the experiments by Dick Durbin and Ed Markey to reach out to blog communities for help in crafting a bill and asking questions in a hearing. Sen. Chuck Schumer has asked the Daily Kos community for their advice on Senate candidates for the upcoming 2008 elections. The House Judiciary Committee posted online all e-mails received from the White House and the Justice Department related to the purging of U.S. Attorneys so the public could aid in the investigation. There is little doubt that the investigations by the community at TPM Muckraker helped the investigation and acted as a source for the media.
The Internet has enabled politicians to tap into a great wealth of knowledge and provided a door into the process for the public. Manuel Castells and Araba Sey write, "by changing the direction and the content flow of information through the use of the Internet, the range of political actors is broadened, new avenues of collective mobilization may appear, and a different format of debate may take place, transforming the political scene that had been framed by the one-way communication systems of the mass media era." Everyone can make a turkey sandwich and politicians should be ready to take a bite.