Joe Trippi, campaign manager for Howard Dean's underdog 2004 presidential bid that began and ended on the web, has a piece of advice for anybody running a political campaign: "It's the network, stupid."
Trippi, who literally wrote the book on digital politics, told a packed house at Mashable Connect that the Internet and social media are sparking a society-wide revolution on a scale not seen since Gutenberg invented the printing press.
The Internet, said Trippi, is helping to build an "army of Davids" engaged in an all-out struggle to wrestle power from the "Goliaths" of the old power structure: special interest groups, Super PACs and political parties that are resistant to change.
Those groups make up the "old guard," said Trippi, who have joined "The Church of Gotta Stop This Now" "this" being a fundamental change to the status quo of worldwide politics thanks to online organizing.
"[The 2012 election] will be a very big, titanic battle about what will be the future," said Trippi, who considers Super PACs political organizations that can collect unlimited funds from unlimited donors the "Goliaths" of our age.
"46 people have contributed two-thirds of every dollar given to every Super PAC in the U.S," added Trippi. "If Super PACs win, what you'll see on the day after this election are 16 people running in 2016 and instead of creating the most impressive social network in history, they'll be speed dating billionaires to get their money because that's how they know they can win."
The Network Rises
The alternative to Super PACs and their billionaire-funded coffers, said Trippi, is online political organization at the grassroots. Trippi highlighted the Obama campaign's digital strategies as an example of the Internet's power to organize a movement. The Obama team (and other campaigns) can collect information about supporters via Facebook, who can then connect based on voters' location or interests.
"The Obama campaign's Facebook strategy is all about data collection," said Trippi. "The 'I'm In' campaign is collecting supporter's information, including where they went to school and where they work. Once the campaign has that data, it opens up a whole new way to connect people."
For Trippi, it's this retail, one-to-one politics that can revolutionize how political campaigns are run by making them about personal connections instead of Super PAC money. However, Trippi pointed out that President Obama recently decided to start taking Super PAC funds a sign, to him, that the pendulum swing of political power is still on the side of the powers that be.
"President Obama must be thinking, 'Shoot, I can't unilaterally disarm against [Super PACs]," said Trippi. "So the billionaires are already re-writing the rules of politics."
The Empire Strikes Back
To Trippi, Obama's decision is just one indication that those in power will try everything to preserve the status quo. Despite this, Trippi remains hopeful that, ultimately, the online "Army of Davids" will prevail and he pointed to the successful struggle against the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA, as an example of such a victory.
"The pro-SOPA camp was the 'Church of Gotta Stop This Now,'" said Trippi. "And the anti-SOPA crowd was a case of "Davids" fighting back." For Trippi, the victory of the anti-SOPA group was an indication that eventually, the "Davids" will be victorious.
"All of the powerful groups are fighting hard to stop whatever the hell this is," said Trippi, talking about online activism. "[Those in power] are going to stall, fight and try everything they can to make [online activism] go away. They'll try to change laws, hold up the Internet and take power back if they can."
"They won't succeed, but they're going to try," he added.