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Published on February 12th, 2008 | by cdadmin

Barack Obama and The Long Tail of Politics

“Welcome my son,
Welcome to the machine
What did you dream?
It’s alright we told you what to dream”
– Pink Floyd “Welcome To The Machine”

Something
is happening. We’ve seen glimpses of it in the past – we’ve heard
whispers about it – we’ve seen glimmers of it before – but we’ve never
actually seen it grow and coalesce like this – in real-time.

What I’m talking about is the Long Tail of Politics and how technology is driving its growth.

For those of you not familiar with Long Tail theory, in 2004, Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson
asserted that the internet enables companies to capture and monetize
the attention of thousands and millions of users, instead of monetizing
the attention of a few large users.

For example, Amazon is
able to profitably sell a large variety of books (representing The Long
Tail) versus just selling a few bestsellers (representing The Head).
Thus, the “tail” is quantifiable larger than the “head.”

The
Long Tail and its business merits have already been debated heavily on
the web with some arguing that The Long Tail only applies to certain
models and others arguing that The Long Tail is a Sisyphean Myth – that
it is impossible to achieve or maintain profitability leveraging The
Long Tail alone. In other words, they argue that The Long Tail is the
gravy of one’s business while The Head is the meat and potatoes.

Only
in retrospect are we able to judge the success or failure of Long Tail
business models. Examples of Long Tail success include Amazon, Netflix,
Google; while examples of failure include Tower Records and Blockbuster.

Which
is why Barack Obama and The Long Tail of Politics is such an historic
event. We are witnessing the birth and evolution of The Long Tail
effect right before our eyes.

The Birth of the Political Long Tail
The
rise of Barack Obama’s political campaign is a stunning phenomenon to
witness. With each state primary and caucus Obama’s campaign continues
to gain momentum.

It seems like only yesterday that Obama was
described as ‘inexperienced’ and ‘not substantive enough’ to win the
Democratic nomination. After all, many believed that “it was time” for
Hillary Clinton to accept her coronation as the Democratic Nominee.

But as New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd wrote this weekend, Mrs. Clinton is beginning to change her position:

“Her
(Hillary Clinton) argument to the Democratic base has gone from a
subtext of “You owe me,” or more precisely, “Bill owes me and you owe
him,” to a subtext of “Obambi will fold at the first punch from the
right.”

Arnold Kling (adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute) argued back in August of 2005
that “The Long Tail is not the political center. It is not a third
party waiting to form. It is not a coalition. It is not a “silent
majority” of either the right or left. It is simply every variety of
political belief that does not fit within the two major parties…..The
Long Tail is a motley assortment of political misfits, wing nuts, and
sober independents.”

Kling goes on to write, “The key point is
that the size of the Long Tail, and its rapid growth, represents the
most significant political phenomenon of our time. What you will start
to notice is the tendency for politics to reflect tension between the
Long Tail and the major political parties.”

Recently, this
tension has been most evident between the Obama and Clinton campaigns
but can also be seen between Ron Paul and his Republican colleagues.
When compared with their counterparts both Obama and Paul have garnered
substantial grassroots momentum as a result of their online, internet
strategies.

For both Obama and Paul, their success is less
about “Right” or “Left” (both polar extremes representing “The
Traditional Head of both political parties”) and more about “the many”
(The Long Tail) that they are attracting to their campaigns.

In Andrew Romano supports Kling’s thesis when he recently wrote in a Newsweek article, “Ron Paul Is The First ‘Long Tail’ Candidate“:

“Two
decades after his listless Libertarian bid, Paul, now back in Congress
and campaigning as a Republican, has become a political phenomenon–a
transformation that may signal a shift away from the two-sizes-fitall
categories of “Democrat” and “Republican” and toward a more
personalized, motley politics.”

Something Is Happening
Conservative columnist Peggy Noonan inadvertently wrote of Obama’s Long Tail effect on Hillary’s campaign in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal:
“I ruminate in this way because something is happening. Mrs. Clinton is
losing this thing. It’s not one big primary, it’s a rolling loss, a
daily one, an inch-by-inch deflation.”

On the other end of the
spectrum James Zogby invokes Bob Dylan’s (“Ballad of a Thin Man”) to
describe Obama’s rise with an article titled, ‘Something is Happening’ Obama’s Movement for Change.”

In short, Hillary Clinton is losing to The Long Tail of Obama campaign.

You
see, Obama is winning *because* of his Long Tail approach to his
political campaign. This approach is manifest in his rhetoric and his
messaging. Even his campaign is leveraging technology to scale its grassroots efforts.

In
similar ways that Howard Dean leveraged Meetup.com to grow his
grassroots efforts, the Barack Obama campaign leveraged Central Desktop
to organize and collaborate with more than 6,000 precincts in
California.

Micah Sifry writes in his article title “Obama, the Internet and the Decline of Big Money and Big Media”:

“The
internet effect is also on grass-roots mobilization, by the campaigns
as they ask their supporters to take actions (click here to virtual
phone bank, or to download a precinct walk list, or to host your own
house party) AND by supporters acting on their own to make and share
their own powerful messages of support.”

Obama builds on this
grassroots theme and uses it to clearly delineate himself from his
opponent’s campaigning methods. In a recent speech Obama reminded the
crowd that “this campaign has been funded by you” (representing The
Long Tail) as opposed to Hillary Clinton and John McCain taking money
from Washington Lobbyists (representing The Head).

In fact,
perhaps inadvertently and unknowingly, The Long Tail philosophy has
become a cornerstone of the Obama campaign. Most politicians who
campaign for the nomination rely on a few large donors to drive them
into office. They often begin speeches by thanking a few people (The
Head) and proceed to speak about themselves (The Head). Conversely, on
the the evening of Super Tuesday in Chicago, Barack Obama’s Long Tail
philosophy culminated when he memorably stated that “We are the ones
we’ve been waiting for, we are the ones we seek.”

Obama’s
driving message continues to speak to thousands and millions of
individuals across the United States. He repeatedly speaks of and
embraces the individuals (The Long Tail) as the key driver to his
campaign.

Grass Roots & Technology

But even more
than his rhetoric, it is his fund raising and grassroots organization
that make The Long Tail most evident. Consider these numbers:

Obama raised $32 million dollars in January, $28 million of it was raised online. This is historic.

We’ve seen glimpses of this in the past:

In 2000:
Howard Dean raised $27 million dollars over the course of his entire campaign, with much of it from online donations. (source: Washington Post)

In 2004:
On the day John Kerry accepted the Democratic nomination he raised $5.7 million in a single day via the internet.

Last year, on November 5th, 2007:
Ron Paul raised $4.3 million in 24 hours and then $6 million from more than 50,000 donors later the same month. (source: Washington Post)

But
none of the above mentioned candidates ever achieved the momentum that
Barack Obama has achieved to date. They were still part of The Old
Machine.

The Scale of The Long Tail
A closer look at the Obama campaign yields stunning numbers from small donors (The Long Tail).

-In January, 90% of the online donations were $100 or less; 40% were $25 or less.

-Additionally, more than 10,000 people gave between $5 and $10 on the internet.

-In total, the $32 million raised came from 275,000 people who gave $100 or less.
(source: Washington Post)

A recent New York Times article compared “Two Ways of Raising Money” and included these graphics comparing The Clinton and Obama campaigns:

Opensecrets.org shows that 26% of Obama’s donors gave $200 or less, compared to Clinton’s 12%.

Scale Matters
The rise of the Obama Campaign tells us that Scale Matters.

It
means that The Long Tail is validated (in politics at least). It also
means that size doesn’t matter after all; rather, it’s the quantity
that matters. Scale Matters.

It is also key to understand that
technology is driving The Long Tail of Political Campaigning. It is
socialized, Web 2.0 software like Meetup.com, Central Desktop,
Salesforce.com, wikis and blogs and Twitter that are all having
significant impacts on the political landscape.

It is
technology that is driving the grassroots effort in such a fast and
scalable fashion for these new campaigns. By enabling users and donors
to contribute their dollars, content and time through online tools the
speed and efficiency in which these efforts grows takes on a network
effect that accelerates campaigns quicker than ever. In many ways, its
the network effect of user participation and user empowerment that is
driving the Obama campaign.

we see similar examples of technology accelerating business, churches and schools. As John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems told an Interop audience earlier this year about how they are using wiki’s and blogs to propel their business: “”…this changes our speed of products forever.”

I
believe that we are witnessing and living through a period where this
[technology] changes our politics forever….welcome to the new machine.

Obama’s
rise is a rare opportunity for us to watch the birth and growth of The
Long Tail in real-time. We do not have to study this in retrospect
(although many of us will); instead, we can watch The Long Tail unfold
right before our eyes.

Will Obama win the nomination? It appears likely, but nothing is certain.

Will Obama win the presidency?

Can The Long Tail win?

Can The Long Tail beat The Head?

Tags: obama, longtail, long+tail, hillary, clinton, ron+paul, ronpaul, election2008, election+2008, barackobama, barack+obama, centraldesktop, central+desktop

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