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Kerry net chief: cool software doesn't win elections

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Votes, Bits, Bytes Zach Exley, the online communications chief for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, offered a brutally frank assessment of his team's elections tactics today. It probably didn't win him many friends at the Berkman Law School's Internet and Society 2004 conference here at Harvard, many of whom have come to hear their faith in the goodness of the internet affirmed - but it's the most accurate account we've heard.

Exley was on a panel with his counterpart Chuck DeFeo, eCampaign manager of Bush-Cheney '04, discussing how the net had influenced politics this year.

The Democrats had no shortage of goatee-chinned web designers, but they were trounced by the Republicans' superior top-down organization.

"The difference between the approach of the left in general, and the Republicans, is that the left was more interested in just putting cool software up. The idea was to put up the tools and let people use them."

He derided net evangelists who believed that the answer was 'let's come up with new ways of talking!'

"The belief was 'let's get 5,000 people out there and they'll talk to each other. but to put a president in office we need to get people organized and trained." In the end, he said, a field organization was far more valuable than blog blather.

"The left's now saying we didn't have people on discussion forums," Exley said. "But we did. It didn't move votes."

He sympathized with a young Democrat volunteer who pointed that the Committee's software - devised by the central DNC, not the Kerry / Edwards campaign [or ACT, as stated in an earlier version of this story] - was actually, um, pretty awful. She had volunteers aplenty but no decent materials for them to use.

"There wasn't a shortage of people - but we didn't have an organization," Exley agreed.

[By email, Zack explains - "We did put up a lot of great tools, but all desined to enable people to act in the field and to raise money. Then -- and this is the big difference between us and the Bush team -- we drove people to use them using the email list of supporters that we built," he writes].

He even accused his GOP counterpart DeFeo of distracting people from the real issues by talking up the magic of the internet. He accused him of "being a hippy". The clean shaven DeFeo didn't look impressed.

So what did go wrong in 2004?

"Republicans are beating us at what used to be our game: the grassroots approach. That's real politics," he said.

"Basically [the Democrats] don't trust the people." When the GOP had lost elections, they didn't joke en masse about moving to Canada. They got their heads down and built an organization.

Exley also provoked a shudder from the more utopian members of the audience by adding, "If Hitler had an email list and some online tools - yeah, we'd be speaking a different language now," pointing out that the tools can be used for evil as well as good purposes.

The take away was pretty stark: after a year of Panglossian happy-talk from media outlets like NPR, the tools proved not to be magic: and the much-lauded "conversation" proved to be an irrelevant distraction from building a real world field organization. None of this should surprise most readers, but the fact that this is even considered controversial shows how much techno utopians have to learn. ®

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