Belmont Club

There's No Business Like Know Business

Suppose there’s no sausage, can a good enough salesmen simply sell the sizzle? Peggy Noonan looks between the bread slices and asks, “where’s the beef?” and suggests the answer is negative.

President Obama’s problem now isn’t what Wisconsin did, it’s how he looks each day—careening around, always in flight, a superfluous figure. No one even looks to him for leadership now. He doesn’t go to Wisconsin, where the fight is. He goes to Sarah Jessica Parker’s place, where the money is.

There is, now, a house-of-cards feel about this administration.

House of cards? Who plays cards any more? Minecraft, maybe. So the cards metaphor only shows how old fashioned Noonan is. Why President Obama’s not done. Quite the contrary, according to Lois Romano at Politico, there’s no way the President can lose. He’s got digital. “The depth and breadth of the Obama campaign’s 2012 digital operation — from data mining to online organizing — reaches so far beyond anything politics has ever seen, experts maintain, that it could impact the outcome of a close presidential election. It makes the president’s much-heralded 2008 social media juggernaut — which raised half billion dollars and revolutionized politics — look like cavemen with stone tablets.”

The data also allows the campaign to micro-target a range of dollar solicitations online depending on the recipient. In 2008, the campaign was the first to maximize online giving — raising hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors. This time, they are constantly experimenting and testing to expand the donor base…

For example, they have found $3 to be a magic number: Asking supporters for that paltry donation to win a chance to attend a fundraiser with the president and George Clooney or Sarah Jessica Parker, has generated tens of thousands of responses — people from whom the campaign can collect highly valuable data and then go back to.

“They are way ahead of Romney micro-targeting and it’s a level of precision we haven’t seen before,” says Darrell M. West, a leading scholar on technology innovation at the Brookings Institution. “[The Obama campaign has] been able to work on it under the radar during the Republican primary season.”

Meanwhile, old fuddy duddy Mitt Romney — who probably doesn’t even know what a smartphone does — is expected to campaign — on television!

Television. You know, where Keith Olbermann used to appear. That would be the equivalent of driving down today’s digital freeway in an Amish buggy. But then Mitt’s a Mormon and probably has a buggy which he drives every week in a white shirt and tie. Politico continues, “it is also apparent that the Romney campaign will stick closely to the traditional campaign model of heavy and expensive television spending — with the assist of wealthy conservative super PACs that have signaled a willingness to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Obama.” The old Republican formula. Hundreds of millions of dollars and a tinny radio ad.

Taken together, the image portrayed by the Politico article is that of an asymmetric contest between a young, tech-savvy President who can “replicate some of the online excitement that propelled him into office four years ago” versus a man who had “neither the time, nor the resources to build a complex digital operation as they were fighting their way through the prolonged primary season.” Its going to be panzers versus Polish cavalry; bows and arrows versus directed energy weapons. In a word, it is game over. Romney might as well quit now.

Harvard’s Mele, who at age 25 helped pioneer the use of social media technology on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that even with some obvious attrition to Obama’s 2008 database, Romney is trailing …

“I’m not going to say he can’t catch up because with enough money and intensity, it may be doable — but it seems very unlikely to me,” said Mele. “(Obama) used the powerful narrative of his 2008 campaign to build a digital infrastructure that remains formidable, both in terms of data and sheer know-how and expertise.”

How can you beat them? They’ve “created a holistic, totally in-house digital operation … hired a number of nonpolitical tech innovators, software engineers and statisticians … invested mightily in cutting-edge technology that scales the website to fit the screen of any device.” In a word, they can sell you anything, even if there is nothing to sell.

“It has been incredibly freeing, because all election campaigns are a slave to history, and the history here is just nonexistent,” according Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “So, we’ve been able to kind of reinvent it.” Yes, they can sell you anything, even if it is nonexistent.

Could it be true?

Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post says that President Obama is vulnerable because “nobody likes a loser”. She claims that “Democrats seem to be inching away from their man, undermining and diminishing the president with a thousand tiny cuts. Not even his strongest alleged ally, Bill Clinton, can stay on message. Of course, Clinton has never really been Obama’s friend, despite his assertions to the contrary.”

Maybe the reason stories touting his digital wonder weapons are being pushed is to counter the perception that he’s a loser. “How can that be? We’ve got Facebook. Resistance is useless. All your base are belong to us.”  At all events, the unanswered question is whether that digital “operation” will be enough to close the sale. Digital can get messages onto your smartphone. But people still have to read them. Digital can create the pathways to share opinions and energize each other, but will they share them?

Today, Obama has 16 million Twitter followers to Romney’s 500,000, and Michelle Obama has nearly 1 million to Ann Romney’s 45,000. On Facebook, Obama has nearly 27 million followers to Romney’s 1.8 million. (It’s hard to know how many of either man’s followers are non-American.)

It sounds impressive, but with that kind of advantage how come the President’s not ahead 32 to one? Why is he even behind?

Maybe because most of that pathway is used to broadcast in one direction only, a high tech overpriced system for transmitting talking points. As a feedback mechanism it looks to be a bust. The President’s recent statement that the private sector economy is ‘doing just fine’ is an example of how well his digital network tells him nothing.

Maybe he doesn’t want it to tell him anything. Maybe it’s there to sell the sizzle, not to take orders. It’s like a pizza chain order taking system that does everything but actually deliver pizza, because there’s none being made. Just a lot of razzle dazzle but no kitchen. Now how do you keep word from spreading around the digital “operation” that the emperor has no pizza? Simple: you ban it.

The problem with building a real digital “operation” is that you have to build loops into it; you have to let events emerge within the network; let processes talk back or branch off; you have to handle exceptions. Otherwise it’s just television on Facebook.

Without loops best digital can at best practice wholesale deception; it can only use microtargeting to make promises that it never intends to keep like taking pizza orders it never intends to deliver. How long can you do that? The problem with microtargeting people who are wired is that the Obama campaign is unlikely to be their sole channel. They can shop elsewhere. Why would they buy at Barack’s if it hasn’t delivered an order in four years?

Any audience sufficiently wired to access Facebook is sufficiently wired to access other sources; the target audience of Obama digital is one in which they will be competing for share. And in that game fulfillment, logistics, and delivery are part of the process.

So is Obama invincible or toast? Nothing is certain between today and November 2012.  The unexpected happens. Nothing is fully under human control. But you can’t sell nothing. Even with digital.

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