Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Rogue Interview with Phil Noble, Politics Online

1:50 p.m. A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Actually, on the way to lunch. I met Alan Rosenblatt, Associate Director of Online Advocacy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Alan had very graciously agreed to walk me to lunch and possibly introduce me to Josh Levy, editor, blogger, and panelist here at the conference. I'm a fan and had asked for an interview. I'm still waiting to hear back. Thought I could streamline the process.

But as luck would have it, as I'm hanging out with Alan around the buffet, who should he greet but none other than Phil Noble. Yes, that Phil Noble, the one whose name I misspelled in the prior post and who was nowhere to be found in the morning break-out session.

Faced with the choice of continuing to seek out Mr. Levy or hang out with Phil Noble, I did what any self-respecting blogger would do.

I let Alan walk into the banquet room without me. I may be green, but I'm savvy enough to recognize opportunity when it comes knocking on my the door. I hope Alan will forgive me. I certainly want to get to know him better and locate the elusive Mr. Levy, but when Phil Noble is willing to talk with you and the rest of the conference is chowing down, you stop and listen.

Mr. Noble and I began discussing the current campaign, his interest in politics, and when he first became interested in the political process. And then, he began to tell the most fascinating story. I couldn't resist. I took out the recorder. For what it's worth, here is my interview with the, as John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal describes him, "...maestro of forward-looking campaigns."

Me: When did you first become interested in politics

Phil Noble: I was nine years old and I was walking through the living room, and my dad was sitting watching the Kennedy-Nixon debate. And he said, "Come here, boy. Watch this." So, I sat and watched it...

Me: ...and it was 1960...

Phil Noble: It was 1960. I was nine years old, and I watched the debate, and when it was over, my dad said, "Well, what do you think?" And I said, "Well, I kinda liked that Kennedy guy." And he said, "Well, why don't you go out there?" And much to my amazement, he told me where the Democratic party headquarters was, so the next day, I just go, I got on my little red bicycle and rode down there and walked in the front door.

Me: And in those days, did you have to have anyone accompany you?

Phil Noble: No, no, no, of course not, no. This is just the small town south, right? I walked in the door fully expecting to see John Kennedy sitting there behind the desk, but he wan't there -- his pictures were there -- and it was exciting! People were running around and the phones were ringing, the hand-cranked mimeograph machine was going, and I was just in there, and somebody walked up to me and says, "What do you need? And I said, "I'm here to help." And they gave me a stack of brochures and patted me on the head, and said, "Here, go give these away."


Phil Noble: So, I went out on the street corner - I'm sure they never expected to see me again - I went out, handed them out, turned around, and came back and said, "Okay. Now what?" And I've been coming back ever since.

Me: As a 9-year old, were you able to digest what was going on in the country at the time, or were you just doing what your father told you to do?

Phil Noble: No, it was exciting. I mean, politics for a 9-year old kid...to see something on television and then the next day be able to -- quote, be a part of it - at 9-years old, and it's -- you don't know what it is -- but you know that it's something really important. And, to be sort of a part of that...

Me: And that's what got you hooked?

Phil Noble: That's what got me hooked. And then, you know, then he got elected and the whole...even at, even at an early age, I mean, his inaugural address really just, I mean this sort of "ask not" stuff...even as a kid...I understood it. I understood exactly what he was talking about.

Me: It was inspiring, right?

Phil Noble: Yes, absolutely. So then, other than one time, one time four years later when my girlfriend was working for Barry Goldwater -- I went to a Barry Goldwater rally -- but other than that, I've never strayed since 1960.

Me: You mean from the Democratic party?

Phil Noble: That's right. I've been a Democratic person ever since.

Me: Did you feel you were instrumental in getting Kennedy elected? You were a 9-year old at the time.

Phil Noble: Well of course, I mean, it was 125,000 votes and I must have given out that many brochures.

[more laughter]

So of course it made the difference.

Me: Is that what Politics Online tries to accomplish now through the Internet?

Phil Noble: Uh...you know, I think what Politics Online tries to do is to say to people that the Internet is radically changing politics and there's a unique opportunity for the next generation to use the tools to remake politics in a way that we've never had before. And that is just as exciting....even as to me as a 9-year old walking into [the Kennedy] headquarters. And now, it's even more exciting because the change is global. The change is bigger. The change is quicker. The change is...

Me: ...the change is instantaneous...

Phil Noble: ...you know, you can literally change the world.

Me: Just from your own perspective, being on the scene, meeting people who are involved in the process, what do you think is going to be the biggest challenge going into this campaign as we narrow the candidates and get our finalists?

Phil Noble: Well, I think a couple of things can happen. Number one: I think Obama, if he stays hot, he may raise a billion dollars, a billion with a big B.

Me: He's a rock star.

Phil Noble: Well...he's beyond "he's a rock star." He's a rock star who, you have to understand, is in the lead. And if he raises a billion dollars, then that's enough to fund a revolution. Then you've got from the White House to the courthouse, resources to really create...a fifty state sweep.

Me: You're assuming he's going to get elected.

Phil Noble: Yeah. I think so. I mean, well, I've been wrong a lot, but I think he may, although I think he may have some trouble today, super super Tuesday. But ultimately, I think he's going to win. And I think McCain is a wonderful guy -- everybody recognizes he's a true patriot-- but I think he is going to sort of fade into becoming a bit player like Bob Dole was in '96. He was just sort of a bit player in [Bill] Clinton's bridge to the twenty-first century, all that kind of stuff. I think that's the potential, a huge potential to have an impact in this country, and even bigger, perhaps even as big as globally. Because there is enornous interest growing in this guy [Obama] internationally, and as soon as the rest of the world figures out how to -- quote, participate in our election -- they're going to. I mean, we may have a half a billion people...

Me: They're already starting to...

Phil Noble: Exactly. So, it's going to be the first global U.S. election and what does that mean? And what are the rammifications for Obama, and the U.S. and the foreign policy going forward? I just think that it's a radically different amount of possibilities out there.

Me: You said that Obama is using the new media in a way his opponents are not. Can you give specific examples?

Phil Noble: Obama's people fundamentally understood what they're doing is creating a movement, and providing the tools to create the movement they want.

Me: The tools? You mean the tools on the Internet?

Phil Noble: Yeah. The online tools. They don't have a pay phone. They have a few donors, they call them up, and they say "Come on, click on this link on our website" and then just make more phone calls. They can turn around a half million phone calls in a few days.

Me: So part of it is the fundraising. Is there any other aspect to it?

Phil Noble: Well, it's everything, everything online. It's the fundraising, it's the ability to enable people to go to their site and do things right now today, in the next fifteen minutes, they are going to make a difference in Ohio and Texas. From anywhere you want to go, from anywhere you are, at any time. And that's stunning, a stunning development.

A friend of mine was in Louisiana. They sent him into Louisiana, and he said, he showed up about two weeks out. Obama showed up ten days out. Had nothing on the ground. Showed up ten days out. Had a rally. Had 10,000 people show up. Got about 6,000 e-mails out about [the rally]. Forty-eight hours later, they sent those supporters e-mails, they said "Click here" on their website, then they made phone calls, and they made about a half million bucks.

Me: You can't compete with something like that...

Phil Noble: That's right. And, you know, if Obama gets beat today and he turns around and says, hell, instead of $60 million, he's going to raise $80 million...


Me: ...people are going to have their say in this election...

Phil Noble: Of course! At some point, an increase in amount becomes a difference in kind. It's a different kind of election. It's totally different.

Me: It's the Cult of Obama.

Phil Noble: Obama-mania. Ya gotta have it.


Me: Thank you, Phil.

Phil Noble: Absolutely.

3:17 p.m. So, there it is, dear readers. Thoughts from the mind of an Internet Politics guru. And I've missed another seminar. But what does that matter when you have the opportunity to speak with Phil Noble, am I right?