THE BLOG
07/27/2007 02:21 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Campaign like it's 1999--What's at stake in the GOP YouTube debate

Joshua Hersh

Rudy Giuliani supporterGOP front runners seem to be bailing on the September 17 YouTube/CNN debate. Democrats should rejoice at this news. Here's why.

Think back to this time in the 2003-2004 presidential campaign cycle. Any well-informed observer would have told you that the Democratic nominee, whoever he was, could expect to be outspent two-to-one by Bush. Since 1998, Karl Rove's team had built an incredible bundling operation that he could apparently dial up to almost any level he chose. For the 2004 cycle, he chose a level that was twice what he expected a strong Democratic nominee to raise.

When Kerry eventually got the nomination, his campaign planners rationally based their fundraising projections on conventional wisdom--and prepared to be outspent roughly two-to-one, as Gore had been in 2000.

But then something unexpected started to happen: Immediately after Kerry dominated the Iowa Caucuses, money started flowing into his website at rate the campaign hadn't seen before. Over the next few weeks, as Kerry emerged as the presumptive nominee, the flow of online funds increased. (The campaign's first leadership team had been notoriously bad at, and even uninterested in, online fundraising.)

The fundraising increase wasn't simply automatic. There's the famous story, from the night of the Iowa Caucus, of Kerry friend and advisor David Thorne hastily making a big "JohnKerry.com" sign for the victory speech podium. Then Josh Ross, the recently-hired Internet director, shrewdly copied online email fundraising practices from Dean and MoveOn (goals, deadlines, etc. -- in other words, the timeless staples of any kind of fundraising). The Kerry and DNC Internet teams that were subsequently assembled (full disclosure: I was a member) did whatever they could to maximize online fundraising.

Incredibly, by the end, the Kerry campaign had raised nearly half of its money online and almost matched Bush in fundraising as a result. And it wasn't all about money: the campaign found that it had hundreds of thousands of new willing volunteers on its email list literally begging to be put to work in the field.

However, if any of the GOP campaign managers are expecting the same thing to happen when their guy emerges as the nominee, they're setting themselves up for one big disappointment. What they need to realize is that the potential for online fundraising and mobilization that the Kerry campaign worked to maximize had been entirely created by the progressive movement at large: the blogs, MoveOn and other large and small online grassroots organizations and the campaigns of the other primary candidates, above all the Dean campaign.

As Joe Trippi noted the other night in Charleston: that online base-building process has not yet happened on the right. Walking away from the YouTube debate is just one more way that the Republican establishment is stubbornly refusing to get started.

There was probably no way for the Bush campaign to build a strong online donor base in 2004. Why? Because the base knew the campaign didn't need the money. The Bush Internet team wisely focused instead on moving message. The Kerry campaign, on the other hand, had the perfect fundraising ask: "Bush is going to outspend us two-to-one unless you chip in." As Kerry began to close in on Bush's fundraising numbers, the campaign could say, "Chip in again to completely level the playing field for the first time in decades."

Unfortunately for the Kerry campaign, almost no one expected parity in fundraising. The Bush camp had planned way ahead for a massive campaign. The Kerry camp had planned for one half as big--and late changes due to a rush of unexpected money can only accomplish so much.

Fast forward to the present. In terms of fundraising, the Democrats now have two massive advantages on their side: First, it sure took them a while but professional Democratic high-dollar fundraisers have learned the lesson of the Bush Ranger/Pioneer pyramid scheme. The Hillary and Obama high-dollar bundling operations appear to be right on par with Bush's. Even if another candidate gets the nomination, that apparatus will probably be available to him.

Second, the Democratic online fundraising base has only continued to strengthen. As of last month, Democrats had already raised several tens of millions online--earlier in the cycle than Dean had raised his first five million online. For another data point, consider that MoveOn alone raised $27 million dollars for the 2006 cycle--totally unprecedented for any grassroots organization in a non-presidential election year.

Will Karl Rove's bundling machine be available for the GOP in 2008? That's not clear. High-dollar donor bases do not enthusiastically invest in underdogs.

Is a grassroots base available for the GOP in 2008? Absolutely. Supporting the underdog is what a grassroots base lives for.

Of course, participating in the YouTube debate will not conjure that base single handedly. That is going to take a lot of work over time for the GOP campaigns. But walking away from this first-ever "People's Debate" is certainly a good way to douse whatever kindling the GOP might have.

If the GOP candidates do in fact bail on the People's Debate, we'll hear more of the excuses we've already gotten. From Romney: "I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman." No matter that, in the very same interview, he went on to defend the Manchester, New Hampshire, "Machine Gun Fundraiser" against critics: "We have to lighten up a bit as a society..."

And we will hear campaigns claim that the "YouTube audience" leans left. But that's simply not true. First of all, common sense should tell them that any audience of tens of millions of people is going to be similar to the general population. And as Michael Bassik has documented at TechPresident.com, research data shows that the YouTube audience is anything but partisan:

YouTube actually attracts more Republicans than Democrats. Specifically, there are 3.3 million self-identified Republicans on the user-generated video site versus 3.1 million Democrats. (An addition 5 million consider themselves independent.)

But there is hope for the GOP yet: Several young campaign, consultant and new media veterans have launched a site for the grassroots to drag the candidates back into the debate even if they come kicking and screaming: SaveTheDebate.com.

More power to them!