Less than two days ago, Rob Zerban was a relatively unknown Wisconsin Democrat running for Congress with little financial backing ($200,000 or so in campaign cash on hand as of Sept. 30). Now, his odds have at least marginally improved, though how good can the chances of beating one of the most powerful Republicans in the nation get?
Who is Rob Zerban? An understandable response. The guy is, after all, running as the Democratic alternative to one of the most prominent figures in the Republican party, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis, who is sitting on $4 million in his campaign coffers. But the incumbent also faces the ire of an emboldened online community set on using the blunt force of an Election Day loss to change the Congressman's mind on key legislation -- much to his opponent's benefit.
Zerban walked into his campaign office on Thursday morning to find emails and phone calls, volunteers and donors coming out of the woodwork. All he did was host a Q&A session on the online aggregating site Reddit.
Now, for arguably the first time, the new dynamic of online advocacy has stepped into the political realm, targeting Ryan and his 2012 re-election bid. And the rules appear different from the ones we've understood over the last three years.
At the height of the 2008 election, pundits and politicos alike marveled at the potency of Barack Obama's netroots operation, which helped propel him to a surprising win in the Democratic primary and a sound trouncing of Sen. John McCain in the general election.
The dynamic was simple: create a groundswell online, tapping into a community that had largely been ignored. Give it something to rally around, a principled figure with a clear message (albeit wishy washy in Obama's case). Drive them to the polls.
It worked. The Obama 2008 campaign created a new model for the convergence of online life and political campaigning -- a model mimicked by nearly every politician under retirement age ever since.
But the Tea Party's successful use of the model in 2010 led to a mix of buyer's remorse and indignation, causing a paradigm shift. These online folks, they are not sheep to be led. Enter Occupy Wall Street. The hive, once manipulated into following leaders, coalesced around itself. They set out to prove talking points and political pressure can flow from the bottom up and created some modicum of change, however intangible.
The new dynamic is simple (and the opposite of Obama's): allow an organic backlash against social, political and economic ills to develop. Avoid a figurehead to rally around. Avoid partisanship. See if a chorus of outrage can induce change at the top.
But the hive-like online community can be easily riled, quick to make up its mind. In the new normal, being first (or lucky) sometimes trumps all other issues. Just look at Rob Zerban.
SOPA Triggers Backlash
Following OWS, Congress served up two bills that drew an online backlash: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The pushback led to calls for a boycott of GoDaddy to punish its advocacy of SOPA. The Web-hosting megalith played a key role in the bill's creation and passage. The embargo was to be carried out on Thursday. For arguably the first time, a company faced the prospect of hemorrhaging revenue because they pissed off the denizens of the web. GoDaddy eventually blinked and withdrew its support.
The efficiency and promised effectiveness of the boycott, which was yet to be quantified as of writing, emboldened online activists to switch to the political realm. Over the last three days, it searched for a target -- and landed on Ryan.
Reddit has become a veritable incubation chamber for these movements, so when activists sought to replicate the GoDaddy kerfuffle in the political realm, discussion started with a proposal to target Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C. All well and good, except for one snag: Graham does not face an election in 2012. Shoot. Alternative? Paul Ryan. Why not? It should be noted that others have also been targeted, though none were picked apart as quickly. And no other effort to date has kick-started the campaign of an opponent, as the anti-Ryan movement did for Zerban.
Reddit took to Ryan like a termite swarm to a rotting log. In less than 24 hours, they managed to: break down Ryan's campaign contributions; dig up a HuffPo post of a man getting arrested after protesting at a Ryan event; request submissions for a logo; have a Q&A session with his opponent; cultivate a list of his donors for possible boycott; and cull together his voting record. They even adopted a name: Operation Pull Ryan (OPR).
In the same period of time, Ryan's camp scrambled to dispel the notion that the Congressman supports SOPA -- ostensibly the reason all of this started. Too late. They were firing at an elusive target. The focus had already shifted beyond Should we focus on Paul Ryan? Activists were already asking themselves How?
It was a surprising turn. Of all the operations on Capitol Hill, Ryan's ranks among the most online-savvy. Yet there he sat, a black-and-white frown gracing his face atop his very own Reddit thread. (The IBTimes reached out to Ryan's campaign and Congressional staff, but requests for comment for this story were not returned as of writing).
Contrary to false reports, Congressman Paul Ryan is not a co-sponsor of the Stop Online Piracy Act, said his spokesman Kevin Seifert in an email response to a previous IBTimes story. He remains committed advancing policies which protect free speech and foster innovation online and will continue to follow the House Judiciary Committee's deliberations on this issue carefully.
Seifert's response came well after Reddit users had dug up a letter signed by Ryan that, though not explicitly endorsing the legislation, lays out its supposed positives in fine detail. The spokesman quickly reached out to any news organization covering OPR. But by then, Zerban jumped on Reddit first and revealed another truth behind the new norm: time equals very real money.
Zerban casually responded to a Reddit user's email regarding SOPA. The discussion, and speed with which he responded, led to a surprise bump in interest and suggestions he take a look at Reddit.
The candidate decided to host an Ask Me Anything (colloquially known as AMA in Reddit-speak) while Operation Pull Ryan was still in its infancy, fielding questions of all manner from Reddit users. Yes, he's against SOPA and parts of NDAA. End the prohibition of marijuana? Yup. He supports publicly-funded elections. Also has two dogs -- no cats (a minus in the online world).
Throughout the exchange, Zerban expressed astonishment at the attention. His AMA rode the top of Reddit as it was ongoing, a first for a Congressional candidate. By the time it was over, the whole campaign had changed. Reddit users realized Paul Ryan's opponent was aligned with their beliefs. Bingo. Never mind whether or not he actually stood a chance, they'll give him a chance.
The Culinary Institute of America graduate walked into his campaign office the next morning to be greeted by a flood of emails and phone calls from willing volunteers and potential donors across the state and country, according to Tyler Norkus, Finance Director for Zerban's campaign.
I think we're still in the shock mode that the people of Reddit would take to this campaign; it's so explosive, he said. It's not something we anticipated. I think Rob thought there would be 30 to 40 people and he'd get a couple of questions. It was way more.
A Wave of Support
For the Zerban campaign, a new pathway to victory has emerged. A wave of support, cultivated and nurtured by the candidate (Zerban posts on the Operation Pull Ryan thread with some frequency) could propel him into greater notoriety and possibly a win. Possibly. The odds of dethroning the incumbent chair of the House Budget committee are still long.
When you're running as a challenger and as somebody who isn't a career politician, it's not as slick as the Ryan campaign, Norkus said. We're really doing the best as that we can.
The Zerban campaign sees the ongoing OPR episode as a flashpoint, a chance to establish itself as a contender while sweeping with it a new model of accessibility, clarity and collaboration in an online venue. He went on to join the anti-GoDaddy cause, pulling his own site from the company. For now, Zerban is as much the hero in the story as Ryan is the nemesis.
The irony behind the whole episode, though, is staggering: Redditors and users have made nonpartisanship a key goal. And many comments and threads point to the need for a Democrat also worth targeting.
We are neither pro-Rob Zerban or anti-Paul Ryan, said a Reddit moderator. We are interested in getting Paul Ryan to say he will change his mind on this issue.
The moderator requested anonymity for various reasons, the greatest being another law of the new norm: there are no leaders, no spokesmen. All voices are equal (echoing Occupy Wall Street's mantra).
That Zerban has emerged a viable candidate as a result of all this is unsettling, according to the moderator.
Our interest in Rob Zerban is solely this: If Paul Ryan is not ready to agree with us on these issues, we're ready to help him find a new job, the moderator said.
Of course, the activists must wait to be taken seriously, and much of that rests on Zerban's ability to ride a boost in support. But if they have their way, SOPA, GoDaddy and Paul Ryan will be among the many felled by their keyboards.