Are campaigns conversations?

Patrick Ruffini says that campaigns are not conversations and he’ll be surprised to hear that I agree with him. He says:

“Campaigns are conversations.” If I hear this one more time, I swear my head is going to explode. Campaign 2008 already has its most overused cliche, at least among us techie types.

“Let the conversation begin,” blares Hillary Clinton’s Web site. “Start the conversation,” says Chris Dodd’s. “This campaign is about YOU,” proclaims Barack Obama’s. Jeff Jarvis has a new blog on Presidential video dedicated to the Platonic ideal of campaigns as a neverending bull session with the voters.

Problem is, I don’t get the point of this exactly. At some level, this seems like no more than a basic transposition of Doc Searls’ “markets are conversations,” which is brilliant as applied to business because markets are inherently leaderless. It’s trickier to apply this pure and abstract ideal to politics where the voice of the people matters but where voters can and do evaluate candidates as leaders who stand on principle and don’t just do things because they’re popular.

He’s right. The comment I left there:

Actually, I don’t say that campaigns are conversations. In the end, a campaign must be propagandistic: It must be the candidate getting his or her views spread, which includes making your allies spread them for you. The only thing two-way about the Dean campaign was the organizational end (‘hey, kids, let’s invade Iowa’). The messaging was and inevitably is one-way, once the candidate has a stand — and once the campaign has begun, he or she better have a stand. I don’t use propaganstic pejoratively; it’s reality.

Having said that, you’re also right that candidates must listen and there are new ways to listen. So they can be more conversational.

But my real point about the use of YouTube et al is that it allows the candidates to act more conversationally, to look us right in the eye on our small screens after we’ve clicked and talk to us quietly, at a human scale, not from a big platform in a huge crowd. Maybe, just maybe, it also allows us, the voters, to be heard better. But we’ll see.

(Crossposted at

  • Hopefully, rather than propagandistic it should be historical, with lots of proof of worthwhile behavior. We’ve already learned the disaster of ‘wanting to have a beer’ with a candidate.

  • Candidacy shouldn’t be a conversation, that ain’t the game!

    Maybe, just maybe we’d all be a whole lot better off if the candidates started the conversation when they get elected?

  • Tansley

    While I agree with you as far as the current paradigm is concerned, I foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when not only campaigns, but elected offices as well, will be influenced, moderated and roadmapped by conversation.

    The whole point of the increasing appeal of the use of the web’s interactivity over ‘from-the-top-down’ campaigning is the candidates’ efforts to try to increase the openness of government – something which the current administration has largely lacked. Let’s face it: the generally-jaundiced public view of politics stems from backroom deals and ill-conceived conspiracies whistle-blown into the public eye by the opposition or the media, or both working in tandem. Mention the words ‘political corruption’ in public and barely anyone will bat an eye. What we’re seeing is the mutation of the ‘whistle-stop’ campaign into the ‘click through’ campaign – voters browsing online through an increasingly self-exposing series of political wannabes and stopping along the way to bolster or cream-pie the candidate of their choice.

    As far as I’m concerned, it couldn’t be happening at a better time. Of course, we’ll likely also have the perennial ‘candidates and elected officials whose opinions change with the COUNTERS on their sites…’ …but at least we’ll know they’re LISTENING… This has got it all over the sort of Patriarchal Snake-Oil Salesmanship we’ve been getting for the past forty years or so.

  • Aren’t campaigns really about persuasion? And as my wife regularly reminds me, persuasion isn’t really a conversation. It’s two sided, but imbalanced by nature. When you’re having a true dialogue/two-speaking(dia-logos)/conversation/speak-with (con-versos), it doesn’t matter if you already agree or if either changes their stand.

    That can be the result, but it can’t be the purpose. Which is also the basis for modern theological conversation vs. evangelism in the tradtional sense.

  • While I agree that campaigns aren’t about a conversation… they are indeed a carefully crafted multi-faceted act of propaganda/persuasion to push the agenda which is a mix of the ideals of the candidate and the constituency.

    With that said, I don’t think that they need to change the way they listen any differently. Sure, they might find constituent endorsement, financial support and backlash in different mediums such as the internet, blogs, youtube, etc. but that doesn’t mean that a candidate must monitor them and respond. The impact the response could have is minimal and unlikely to push a voter one way or another. Furthermore, thats another avenue which is a cost to monitor and respond to… and it’s a cost which for most politicians will not have a worthy ROI to warrant investment in.

    I do think that those mediums do provide a benefit for furthering the campaign message, as most of the blogosphere is reporting and endorsing. The use of blogs, youtube and social media is beneficial for furthering the campaign message to a broader spectrum of people and is worth doing… however, engaging in, monitoring and allowing the conversation to mold the candidate is not a worthy or viable endeavor.

  • Please don’t assume that there are only two real candidates for President in 2008, an impression the media for inexplicable reasons would like most Americans to believe or accept.

    We in New Mexico and Westerners in general take New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson very seriously, and point to the Nevada forum yesterday, where he did very very well, and yet not a word in today’s New York Times. It is shortsighted and seriously flawed thinking by media and by pundits which ignores such a candidate of Richardson’s calibre, at least in the context of New York politics.

    His resume is a breath of international fresh air, and he has more real governmental experience than Hillary and Obama PUT TOGETHER! Richardson was re-elected to a second term by a record number (70%) and I am certain he is going to pull in a huge number of Hispanic votes, particularly in California, Texas, and Florida. We need an internationalist as in former UN Ambassador to help rebuild the ravaged US international perception after 6 years of corporate manipulation and plutocracy, a nation run by the Halliburtons of America.

    We think Richardson is the right person for the job. We’ve seen him in action with the Legislature here, and his legislative agenda as President can be discerned by his efforts at the state level.

    Stephen Fox

  • Kris Patel

    Good post, Jeff. A light into the 2008 campaign propaganda shows us that the candidates are embracing these new mediums in hopes to reach a wider audience. The conversational aspect of some of the videos are, well, a nice change from the mass gathering statements, “Vote for ME because of …blah blah blah…! YeeHaa!” I do believe that a conversation is two ways and in this sense we can talk back by saying “yay”or “nay” on the ballot.

    Mr. Fox, I do not believe that this post was concerning the mass coverage, or lack thereof, of Bill Richardson. However, in response I would like to say that political coverage in the NYTimes is a huge jump for presidential hopefuls but not a requirement. He was just in the paper a week ago, Thursday Jan. 11, for brokering a possible truce in Darfur. Furthermore, Mr. Richardson has been recognized as a strong candidate who has the best chance of breaking into the “jocks” of the democratic party out of the 6 lesser known Dem candidates. He is a slow mover who needs to up the ante on his appearances in order to get more coverage.

  • Pingback: But hey, What the hell do I know…huh! » Campaigns and Conversation the Welsh way.()