The Emergent Chaos of the Elections

First, congratulations to Barack Obama. His organization and victory were impressive. Competing with a former President and First Lady who was the shoo-in candidate is an impressive feat.


I’d like to talk about the Obama strategies and a long chaotic campaign in two ways. First in fund-raising and second, on the effects of a long campaign.

In fund-raising, everything I’ve read says that the Clintons were much better at getting the “big” donations allowed under McCain-Fiengold. (Which I’ve commented on here and here.) What I now want to say is that the “chaos” strategy of enabling lots and lots of small donations seems to have worked spectacularly. Letting your supporters self-select, emerge, and then working them over and over. In fact, Dissent commented that her name was added to their list when she made a media inquiry. Highly chaotic, no big one-night rubber chicken totals, and highly effective.

As an aside, I know that oftentimes in startups, we’ve ended up quixotically pursuing big deals, because big deals can be given attention. The strategy of using channels and having lots of little sales can be harder to advocate for.

Secondly, voter engagement is at a high everywhere in the country. Pundits often complain about low voter turnout, low engagement with the process, and people not caring. It seems that a little chaos, diverse candidates, and having a winner emerge from the contest are healthier for democracy than having the pundits select a winner.

We’d like to thank everyone who paid attention to our primary endorsements.

7 thoughts on “The Emergent Chaos of the Elections

  1. It seems to me that campaigns predicated on large numbers of small contributions only stand a chance when there is a high level of voter engagement and high turnouts. When voters are less engaged (or, to put it another way, more apathetic) then the campaigns which rely on smaller numbers of larger donations are going to perform relatively better.
    As for the vagaries of campaign contribution limits, it seems to me that most of the problems would be resolved by the simple process of requiring that all contributions are anonymous. Giving a politician $100 means ‘I support you’, but giving a politician $100,000 means ‘I want you to do something for me”, with the sub-text of “potentially to the detriment of your smaller donors”. If the politician is not allowed to know who the donors are then there is much less scope for being bought off.
    Of course implementing such a campaign finance system might have interesting implications for money laundering laws 🙂

  2. Enforcing anonymity seems like it would be hard. One could, for example, encode one’s identity into the amount given.

  3. @Chris: In order to enforce anonymity to any extent you would probably need to stop the recipient from seeing the details of individual transactions but rather show some quantised periodic total (e.g daily, with only 4 or 5 significant digits, weekly with some more detail). That said, encoding an identity into the value in any even vaguely secure manner would require very large donations indeed!

  4. @Nicko — yeah. Anybody who can afford to donate their passport number’s worth of dollars probably can buy their way out of jail anyway :^).
    I have, however, seen this kind of thing done informally, for example by making on-line donations with a specified number of cents so that the recipient knows they came via a given route.

  5. While I’m in favor of anonymous campaign contributions, it seems to me that I can always show the honest politician* a bank statement or canceled cheque.
    (*The one that stays bought.)

  6. An important point that I haven’t seen covered anywhere: the Obama campaign benefitted greatly from its diversity. I’ve documented several natural experiments with this in Cognitive diversity and the 2008 US election on Liminal States. A lot of them focus on the One Million Strong for Barack group on Facebook, which is an interesting naturally diverse sample that matches the high-level stereotype of Obama supporters (“looks like Facebook”).
    Also, don’t confuse “chaos” with “coordinating, independetly acting, and self-empowered”. The Obama campaign was very clear about articulating their strategies, key metrics (“delegates!”), projections (the spreadsheet) and messages. One full-time Obama volunteer is a moderator of that group and sometimes hangs out but basically we are on our own. And there are bunches of others like it.

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