Political Machine in a Box


Last Sunday, Everett Ehrlich asked "What will happen when a national political machine can fit on a laptop?" The piece echos some of the information I've posted recently on connected democracy. The article plays off an interesting theory by economist Ronald Coase: "The cost of gathering information determines the size of organizations." Of course in the Internet age, the cost of gathering information has shrunk dramatically.

For all Dean's talk about wanting to represent the truly "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the paradox is that he is essentially a third-party candidate using modern technology to achieve a takeover of the Democratic Party. Other candidates -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Wesley Clark -- are competing to take control of the party's fundraising, organizational and media operations. But Dean is not interested in taking control of those depreciating assets. He is creating his own party, his own lists, his own money, his own organization. What he wants are the Democratic brand name and legacy, the party's last remaining assets of value, as part of his marketing strategy. Perhaps that's why former vice president Al Gore's endorsement of Dean last week felt so strange -- less like the traditional benediction of a fellow member of the party "club" than a senior executive welcoming the successful leveraged buyout specialist. And if Dean can do it this time around, so can others in future campaigns.

The Internet has given Dean a way to recreate assets that in the past could only be built by a large organization. Dean has done a one-off, but its not so far fetched to image a "political machine in a box" that you fire up and start using with very little effort. It could even be run as a service for a monthly fee---maybe a premium if the candidate wins. Who needs a party except for the brand.

Well, the Post article talks about a number of groups that don't need the brand so much as they want to mold the brand in their own image.

Here are some predictions. First, if Dean loses the nomination, he will preserve his organizational advantage and reemerge as a third-party force four years from now. He has done with technology what Ross Perot could not do with money alone. Second, the evangelical right will become a separate political party in the near future, and will hold its own conventions and primaries. Like the Conservative Party in New York state, it will usually endorse Republican candidates. But evangelicals will use their inherent party-ness to make the Republican candidate stand in front of them and give a separate acceptance speech. And finally, in the next six or eight presidential elections, a third-party candidate will win the presidency. Issues -- most likely the coming fiscal debacle and the inescapable abrogation of promises made on Social Security and Medicare -- will give the third-party candidate an opening. But technology will give him, or her, the means.

I think there's a real possibility that technology will allow a third party candidate to build a platform by shopping the various semi-independent groups to form a candidacy that cuts across traditional party lines and includes positions that have traditionally been seen as inseparable from the two primary parties.