When House Republicans unveiled their new crowd-sourcing project to solicit ideas for a new political agenda, it was met with a fair amount of derision from reporters and bloggers (including our own Adam Weinstein, who dubbed it an “epic web fail”). Folks like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank were quick to point out that the America Speaking Out site had become a magnet for liberal trolls. But with all their focus on the trolls, critics have utterly missed the genius behind the project that has tremendous implications for the upcoming midterm elections. Here’s why:
To submit or vote on an idea on the GOP site, visitors are required to set up an account and provide a valid email address and zip code. And in doing so, participants must agree to give America Speaking Out and their local congressmen permission to contact them by email. This small requirement turns America Speaking Out into a list harvester’s dream, and a powerful tool for Republicans looking to engage and mobilize voters.
Just in its first three days America Speaking Out had a quarter-million unique visitors, and of those, more than 20,000 had submit an email address to log in and submit ideas or vote. By the end of the summer, and after House members promote the site through a series of town hall meetings starting this week, those email lists could potentially include tens of thousands of people. And, they’re doing it all at a fraction of the cost of the old direct mail methods once standard fare for political campaigns.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, says that members of Congress have always tried to find ways to connect with constituents and voters on issues that they care about, but this new site allows them to do that with extremely sophisticated filtering. She notes that House members have to carefully navigate the social media world to avoid running afoul of the famous “franking rules” that bar members from using email addresses collected from taxpayer-funded sites like America Speaking for campaign purposes. (Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the project, assures that none of the names will be sold or distributed to entities other than local congressional offices.)
But the information they’re gathering through the site will allow GOP House members to engage with constituents in a far more interactive way than in the past, even if they can’t use the addresses for fundraising. McGehee says the party has already mastered the fundamentals of Internet fundraising. Now, she says, “What’s critically important is keeping people engaged and ginned up, and doing in a way where the members keep control of the message.”
When it comes to using the Internet to micro target voters, the Republicans seem to know what they’re doing. The Washington Post reported Friday that that for the first time in a decade, the GOP is doing a far better job of reaching small donors than Democrats are. Republicans have brought in $70 million this year, compared with $44 million in small donations raised by Democrats. The kind of engagement the House Republicans are experimenting with at America Speaking Out combined with its recent big push into social media like Facebook and Twitter only promises to amplify those numbers. It’s quite a turnaround considering that the current majority party came into power on the coattails of a president who created the most successful small-donor fundraising machine in American history.
Whether America Speaking Out will result in a revolutionary new party platform, of course, still remains to be seen. But even that idea seems far more promising than the early critics suggested. After all, any democratic site that gives people an unfiltered voice will attract its share of nuts (just check out the comments on Mother Jones!). By Friday, most of the trolls at America Speaking Out had been buried. Serious ideas were creeping to the top. An epic fail it surely is not.