The Open Source Political Campaign

I admit to being seriously obsessed with politics, and my family can attest it becomes an irrational obsession every four years. Chalk this up to my upbringing. I’m the son of a political journalist in Washington, D.C., ours was a family where talk of politics was a nightly ritual, where I was instructed about the pocket veto at age seven and dragged out onto the campaign trail at age eight (McGovern, on the press plane, in 1972, yes I’m that old).

This year, the obsession has been more extreme because I’m supporting the best presidential candidate of my lifetime. I’m just cynical enough to feel slightly moronic even writing this. But I truly do believe this is the best politician I’ve seen, in my life, full stop.

So, instead of just obsessively checking every political blog every 2 minutes, instead of just donating money, I’ve actually gotten involved. I worked as a precinct captain here in San Francisco, making 1000s of phone calls to about 500 potential voters in my precinct, then canvassing the precinct on foot for 3-4 days to get out the vote.

And two weeks ago, I headed to Indiana to work in a field office, in Muncie. I could write so much about that experience, as I canvassed such a wide variety of neighborhoods during my three days on the ground — from the poorest African American neighborhood in the city on a Sunday morning, to blue collar mostly white neighborhoods, to more upper middle class neighborhoods.

But the thing I wanted to write about here, based on these two experiences, is the open source nature of the Obama campaign. It’s a profound change from what has come before.

The work of the campaign is driven by a substantial army of volunteers (1 million or so). Their efforts are loosely coordinated. As a volunteer, it is expected you’ll have the wherewithal to figure most things out on your own, with little direction or guidance from anyone else. What to say to voters, how best to make Obama’s case, what days to canvas, what nights to make phone calls.

This is, I am quite sure, by design. Perhaps it’s mostly a legacy and learning from Obama’s days as an on-the-street field organizer himself. Or, perhaps it’s also a more direct embrace of the open source framework for collaboration by large groups. I don’t know.

The Obama website is your data platform, spewing out phone numbers of voters to call, precinct canvassing lists, and handy access policies to be used.  Sharing knowledge, in person and online, about what works and what doesn’t is encouraged.

As a volunteer, you are left to figure out what you’re going to do, when, and how you’ll accomplish your work with the tools you’ve been given. It’s not for everyone. But, because it forces a kind of self-selection early on, I’ve found that the Obama army is unusually diverse, driven, hard-working, confident, and self-reliant.

There are other parallels. Clay Shirky‘s Here Comes Everyone  is my nightly read at the moment, and his description of the volunteer army that makes Wikipedia is also relevant here.  In particular, Shirky makes the argument that Wikipedia should have theoretically been a victim of the tragedy of the commons, but hasn’t because the volunteer, loosely-coordinate army that  is devoted to Wikipedia working is usually able to thwart the trolls and ne’er -do-wells seeking attention.

It’s clear the large, passionate and active army working for Obama has been of similar importance. In the past two elections, folks like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly have been able to drive the debate in the broader mainstream media, by pushing relentless, often unfair and untrue, lines of attack that get picked up by mainstream outlets and go unanswered.

As Exhibit A, review their work in 2000 and 2004 against Al Gore and John Kerry, where their attacks largely went unanswered, and instead were amplified by mainstream media outlets that felt compelled to cover them as "news." Often without any analysis of the claims, in a quest for neutrality and objectivity, leaving the candidates to try to answer the charges themselves, which in turn made them look defensive and sometimes weak.

This year, hundreds of thousands of bloggers, with their own personal media outlets, have had Obama’s back. They’ve responded instantly and vociferously and increasingly intelligently to the extremist right-wing mischief makers, or similar thrusts from the Clinton campaign. They can’t keep an O’Reilly or Scaife or Hannity or Limbaugh from saying what they’re going to say; but they have been able to keep other mainstream media outlets a bit more honest. As Exhibit B, I give you the ABC News debate.

We don’t know yet whether this will result in Obama’s election. But these changes are dramatic, important, and will be far-reaching in the end.