Candidate College on Social Media in Local Politics

In 2011, I participated in a candidate training organized by Morgan Pehme of Civic NY, a good government group. While I was a panelist on the last session (which addressed social media in particular) the highlight for me was asking four high powered campaign consultants about using new media in local campaigns. Specifically – are any of them claiming expertise in using new media? And if not – who do they recognize in the field as having expertise they respect?

The answers were revealing. There was a recognition that politics is changing, and that this is an important field. Just not important enough that any of these folks needed to develop actual expertise it, in contrast to other campaign management skills involving field, fundraising or phone calls. For one of them, it was enough to hire bright young things and be done with it. None of them could name an actual ‘expert’. The most fascinating response was that ‘social media is only worth 100-200 votes, so you can give it to a volunteer if that’s what they are most passionate about. Don’t waste too much time on it.’ (I couldn’t stop thinking about former Congressman Weiner while hearing this.)

And then the New York Times Magazine article about the Republican’s use of online strategies in the 2012 election came out two weeks ago. In it, you can hear the frustration of Republican operatives who tried mightily to help their team do better at social media and online tools generally – but failed mightily in multiple dimensions.

“There are always elders at the top who say, ‘That’s not important,’ And that’s where the left has beaten us, by giving smart people the space and trusting them to have success. It’s a fundamentally anti-entrepreneurial model we’ve embraced.”

Here in New York, the division isn’t between R’s and D’s. It’s between smart, entrepreneurial people who don’t have status power, and the insular, top down cohort of political consultants and campaign managers who essentially run every race. My impression is that some of them are now working on the question of how to project expertise in social media, online advertising, and other new media tools, notwithstanding that just about all of them adopted counter-factual opinions and practices in the last few years. And that’s actually progress; even their most misguided and trusting clients are demanding that the folks who yesterday said that social media wasn’t that important now offer guidance on using Twitter. Obviously, folks like me are in the same category as ‘premature anti-fascists’ were in the 40s; clearly suspicious for not having soberly waited to become a late adopter.

I suspect that almost none of them are asking the most important question in 21st Century, open source and open ended politics: how do we remove that insular filter that puts us two steps behind instead of being the ones that are two steps ahead? That my friends, is the real question. Social media just gives us a better way to ask it.


If you want to help answer that question while learning hard social media skills, don’t forget to register for Organizing New York, March 22-24.