Having followed computing and politics since 1996 I have long been fascinated with whether scaled Internet-based computing can, in fact, cut the cost of campaigning.
This year represents the best test yet of that proposition. Every Presidential candidate has a Web site. Most run Linux.
By most accounts the "best" computing operation is that of Barack Obama. They have a host of video and mobile tools, they make branded use of social networking, and they use their candidate's personal appearances to build their database.
That's the key, the integration of the online and the offline worlds.
At every Obama speech viewers are asked for contributions, as small as $1. This gets them into the campaign's computers, from which they can be hit with e-mails and text messages.
Best of all, the campaign can tie the interest and activity of supporters together using the database, then link that to real activity. Amazon.Com knows if you're a big-spender or a new customer, and the Obama people know your level of commitment. It's basic database marketing.
Proof of concept came in Iowa, where the Obama campaign was able to do what the Dean campaign of 2004 merely hoped to do. It out-organized the local political organization, drew thousands of new voters into the process, and won.
As I write elsewhere, he scaled the intimacy. (In the name of full disclosure, I'm an Edwards supporter.)
An important question remains unanswered. To what extent is Obama's sound computing effort, running FreeBSD and Apache, a function of business planning, and to what extent is it a function of better financing?
On the Republican side two of the less well-funded candidates, Mike Huckabee and John McCain, are now the front-runners. But open source has nothing to do with it. Both run Windows Server 2003 and Microsoft IIS. (So does Fred Thompson.)
Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom went in with better funding, were also running Linux, according to Douglas Karr.
Your operating system, in other words, makes little difference in your success. But at least on the Republican side, the money race is not yet definitive.
The question for Republicans is, does the use of networked databases have anything to do with that? If this were 1996, and neither McCain nor Huckabee had the capability to energize their support cheaply, using technology, would they stand a chance?
And what does it say that Ron Paul can raise so much money yet not translate that into a big vote, even with Linux on his side?
My personal feeling is that technology is leveling the political playing field, somewhat, that message can sometimes beat money, but given a choice candidates would still rather have the bucks than the benefits of open source.
When and if that changes, it will be a big day in American politics.