Mother Jones: How has the political landscape changed since Dean’s ’04 run?
Nicco Mele: There are three things that are really important. One is that four years ago, the Internet was not as central to peoples’ lives. Two, video is infinitely more pervasive than it was four years ago. Three, social networking was on the radar but it was not nearly as big a deal as it is now. The flip side is, the people who vote and give money are still overwhelmingly of an older demographic, and although the Internet is part of their lives, they are still pretty traditional in the way they do a lot of things.
In politics, you have one day where you have to get everybody out to vote for you. And if the technology does not help you do that, then it doesn’t matter.
MJ: Do you think websites will play as central a role as they did for Dean in 2004?
NM: I’d say an even more central role. Who would have thought five years ago that Hillary Clinton would announce her candidacy for the presidency on the Internet. That would have sounded like a crazy pipe dream from nerds five years ago.
At the end of the day, one of the most important things that the Internet does is that it levels the playing field in all kinds of dramatic ways. The difference between a $1,000 website and a $100,000 website can be pretty minimal if you have smart people working on the $1,000 website.
MJ: Some people say that the landscape has changed because of Web 2.0 and blogs and that candidates’ websites are not going to be as important or as dynamic as Dean’s.
NM: I just don’t buy that. That may be true for a certain demographic of people. What is the average age of an Iowa caucuser? I don’t know, but I am guessing it is between 25 and 65. How many of them are on Facebook? I bet you very few. How many of them are going to go to candidate websites? I bet you all of them. It has to do with accountability. If I am a primary voter in New Hampshire, I want to know what the candidate says.
MJ: Do you think it is worth it for campaigns to hire someone to weigh in on the different political blogs?
NM: Just like you have your constituent desks, and your press department, you should care about what bloggers think. They are part of the activist elite, and you have to communicate with them. But trying to talk to all the blogs everywhere is like trying to boil the ocean. You have to strategize carefully with limited resources. Bloggers are clearly an important group, but what election have they won or lost?
MJ: It is all pretty experimental.
NM: There are a lot of different ways to do it. There are the A-list bloggers with whom you want to cultivate relationships and you want to make sure your candidate talks to. You also want to cultivate relationships with their audiences, which is what their comments section is about. At the same time you also want to build a community of people who you can tap to go out to all these blogs.
MJ: We’re doing a package of stories around what we’re calling “open-source politics.” I’m wondering what you think of that term.
NM: It’s a funny thing because “open source” means one thing to real nerd programmers but in common cultural currency it means something a little different. And I’m comfortable with the notion that fundamental principles of open source are collaboration, accessibility, and transparency.
MJ: So is there is tactical advantage for politicians to using the web?
NM: There’s a very strong argument to be made that Dean’s use of technology for collaboration drove his fundraising, giving him a tactical advantage to catapult him into the front of the pack. Now what’s interesting about technology is that a top tier candidate who doesn’t need the money from the masses may not need to embrace that for the tactical advantages.
MJ: In your view, what’s the most overhyped Web 2.0 technology?
NM: Phones. The reason cell phone use is overhyped is one, they’ve been set up to make it hard to raise money, and two, the people who are most likely to take advantage and make get-out-the-vote calls are of a demographic that doesn’t really vote that much anyway. But those two criticisms apply across a wide range of technology.
MJ: What part of the political use of the new web tools makes politics less democratic and what part makes it more democratic?
NM: This is all about intention. A small minority can always manipulate. Technology is relatively irrelevant. It’s creating new ways to do old things; there’s nothing inherently good or bad about it. It’s all about the intention you bring.