May 21, 2009 | By Peter Bihr |
Since I started working on the online campaign for the German federal elections, I haven’t blogged about it here. (Although I was interviewed twice, by American PoliticsMagazine and by German newspaper taz.de. Also, see my disclosure at the end of this post.) We’re way into the campaigning season by now. Between that and my time in the US, I’ve had a bit of time to reflect on the online campaigns in Germany and the differences to the American presidential elections. It’s time, I think, to share a few thoughts – mostly on how useful the Obama campaign’s lessons are for German political campaigns.
We’ve all watched the US campaigns closely, and have ever since. I remember in 2004, working for the SPD’s online agency as a student, we watched the Dean campaign for their organizing online and micro donations. This time, all eyes were on Obama, for their organizing online and social media activities. Both times, the US elections came relatively briefly before their German counterparts, which makes them good material for analysis.
So can’t we just clone the Obama campaign and all is well? Now there’s a handful of problems with that. Besides the fact that it would be pretty boring to do that, of course.
There is no Obama in Germany. Obama is a very strong, charismatic character who symbolizes a time of change, who totally hits the zeitgeist. There is no German equivalent. (Although some might disagree on this one.)
Obama was good on the web, but also offline. The Obama team had an excellent online strategy. They also had massive resources: Money, staff, volunteers. But we shouldn’t forget that the Obama campaign also featured the biggest ever budget for traditional media. (Those TV spots are still pretty costly, remember?) Also, the campaign was good about mobilizing offline by coordinating online. In Germany, we need to find the balance between online and offline, which traditionally is a tricky one.
A different political system. Germany has a profoundly different political system from the US. Example: We vote primarily for parties, not candidates – at least not on the federal level: The chancellor is elected by the parliament, not directly by the citizens. This makes it harder to focus a campaign on just one candidate. Also, privacy regulations in the EU make the kind of contact databases that the US campaigns maintained widely impossible. (Which isn’t bad, if you ask me.)
A different political culture. Germany is not America, and the political culture is a very different one. Volunteering, donations, even discussing politics works differently here. Cold-calling your friends to vote for one party? Forget it. Donations are nowhere as important as in the US. Politics are considered a very personal matter that’s discussed only with close friends. Just to name a few key differences, all of which have to be reflected in a successful campaign.
Smaller budgets. (Waaaay smaller.) Not the least important: budgets for election campaigns are way smaller than in the US. Consequently, the teams involved in the campaigns are smaller, too. This gives you a somewhat different framework to operate in.
Germany has a weak political blogosphere. This is a fascinating one, particularly since nobody seems to quite know the reasons: The German political blogosphere is strangely underdeveloped. (Speculations range from Germans being to focused on hierarchies to value non-expert bloggers’ opinions to a lack of need for alternative media because there is a strong and highly diverse media system in Germany.) For my M.A. thesis I interviewed journalists about the relevance of political blogs for political journalists in Germany, and the results were pretty clear: Although the journalists stated that they would love to have more political blogs around, the blogs were mostly irrelevant to their work. That was in 2007, so it has changed a bit. The upcoming elections also lead to an increased activity in the political blogosphere. Again, a different framework for a campaign.
So where does that leave us? We have to look at the Obama campaign, and others. But we cannot, should not, and will not try to clone it. Quite the contrary: A critical look at what was done online in the US will help us more than just using the same tools.
So a mix of a bit of cherry picking plus some genuinely freshly adapted or developed ideas is what we’re going for. And as I said to the editor of PoliticsMagazine: The youth campaign is “all about getting the basics right”. Website and blog need to be state of the art; a solid contact database; Social Media presence where needed; and of course a focus on giving the community the tools they need to organize themselves. So are we on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr? Of course, wherever it makes sense. But that can’t be all. After all, this isn’t about tools, it’s about a strategy, about issues, about the people who make up the community.
Full disclosure: I’m an adviser to the Online Youth Campaign for Jusos, the youth organization of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). All thoughts here, as always, are my personal points of view only, and they don’t necessarily represent my clients’ point of view.