Back in 2008, it looked like then-candidate Barack Obama had turned the Internet into a magic box for his presidential campaign, churning out campaign donations and volunteers.
In the wake of that juggernaut, many of us who work in online communications and media heard from organizations and candidates who wanted to replicate the vaunted Obama campaign — as if online tools alone could turn just about any issue into a passionate cause with millions of dedicated activists.
Today, cooler heads understand that the Obama campaign used the web to mobilize, rather than create, excited supporters. Voters wanted a fresh voice to get behind. Through smart use of resources, the campaign took advantage of an electorate that was ready to buy what the candidate was selling.
In other words, the Obama campaign started with a great message, and used online tactics to spread that message among receptive voters.
A great example of what worked for the Obama campaign was the famous “Yes We Can” video, the often-shared celebrity remix of Obama’s concession speech after the New Hampshire primary. Though it was produced independently, the campaign pounced on the video’s popularity, and the slogan “Yes We Can” became a simple but effective rallying cry through Election Day.
Now, just as Obama used the web to win, the Republicans have a similar opportunity thanks to Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI). More than any other Republican group (or conservative organization, for that matter) Ryan has laid out a case that details the benefits of spending cuts to the recipients of entitlement programs.
Plenty of Republicans have had similar ideas in the past, but Ryan delivered them with a pithy and effective — and easily shareable — web video. Ryan’s three minutes on YouTube crystallized the debate and provided a stark and distinct difference between the parties’ visions for the federal government. Further, Ryan made the important point that curbing the growth of government was the only way to preserve certain social programs.
Like Obama’s 2008 message, Ryan’s call for change is well timed and falls on willing ears. The rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009 and 2010 suggests a voting public willing to listen to the case for a smaller, streamlined, limited government. Ryan’s Path to Prosperity provides an organizing point for Republican, conservative, and/or center-right groups.
But unlike the Obama campaign of 2008, little is being done to leverage this organizing point into meaningful action. This is especially troubling given the advances in online organizing Republicans made in the wake of 2008. If there ever was an issue where citizen activists could make a major impact in spreading the word and providing support for bold elected officials, this is it.
But effective tools (like an excellent web video) and winning messages (such as the need to cut government spending to help the less fortunate) can do nothing without meaningful action.
Already, Democrat-leaning groups are lining up to use the Path to Prosperity to attack vulnerable Republicans. President Obama’s re-election will no doubt point to Ryan’s proposals when accusing his Republican opponent of wanting to slash spending at the expense of the poor and elderly.
If center-right groups cannot mobilize — soon — around the Path to Prosperity, Democrats and their allies in the political left will be able to define the grassroots battle lines. Their charges that the Ryan plan cuts too much at the expense of society’s neediest citizens will become accepted as fact.
Ryan’s Path to Prosperity video isn’t just the opening salvo of an ongoing debate on spending, but a test to see if the GOP really learned anything from Obama’s 2008 election campaign after all.
Will Republicans seize their own “Yes We Can” moment?
Jim Eltringham is the Vice President of Online Campaigns at Advocacy Group, Inc.