How a search engine fired Nancy Pelosi

By now every observer of American politics is familiar with the phrase “Fire Nancy Pelosi,” especially the soon-to-be-former speaker herself. But even the wonkiest of political creatures will be surprised to learn how a software algorithm led to that meme entering the political landscape. What is bound to shock data-driven technology people is that many Republican insiders completely disagreed with the data, and thought that a campaign targeting Speaker Pelosi wouldn’t ignite public ire. This is the inside story of how Speaker Pelosi found herself the target of the brand of politics she has practiced for years, and how this may well be the year that consumer technologies chose a winning political message; it is also a warning tale to people in the public opinion and mobilization businesses.

In the weeks before Speaker Nancy Pelosi succeeded in ramming through President Obama’s effective takeover of the American health care system, the leadership of the Republican National Committee was engaged in a ground battle of sorts to stop the legislation. Mimicking a political campaign, all of the divisions of the RNC worked together to help people in swing-districts get informed about Obamacare and get in touch with their representatives. We were far from alone in that effort. Separate from our campaign, Tea Party activists took to town halls, groups like American for Prosperity organized rallies; Americans, many of them first-time political activists, called the Capitol to voice their concerns about the government making their medical decisions for them. Despite all of this, the fact remained that, by virtue of the Democrats’ overwhelming majorities, the Obamacare bill would pass. (However, this was largely a charade since Pelosi announced she would use an obscure procedure to “deem” it passed otherwise.)

If Pelosi slammed the bill through, Americans had made it clear they would be outraged. They would want a place to focus that frustration, and an immediate way to fight back against a Congress that was at the pinnacle of their already impressive arrogance; not only were they refusing to listen to a growing majority of its citizens, they seemed to mock the very idea that Congress should ever listen to the people — “this is my town hall, I make the rules” and “we have to pass the bill so you can find out what’s in it” — should serve as the American versions of “let them eat cake” (falsely attributed to Marie Antoinette). Part of our job at the Committee is to work with people at moments like these, to help them get the outcome they want through electing people who want the same things. In this case, Americans desperately wanted the chance to repeal a bill that even the most committed Tea Party activists believed would be jammed down their throats. The question for us was, how do we best capture the moment with a message that is compelling, big enough to stick and, most importantly, honest?

The prevailing wisdom among the political long-beards was that we should launch a movement based upon the message “repeal it.” While that was (and is) unquestionably our legislative goal, the view of those of us new to politics was different: since we knew the world would be full of people calling for repeal, it was clear that would join a cluttered field of messages and therefore advertising terms would be expensive. We also favored a tactic that would most ideally meld our message — the Democrats are not listening — with an immediate action our supporters could take, one that could last well past the health care debate and into November. The way we expressed this message had to be undeniably the single most potent and defensible words we could use.