We've written about the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul and Barack Obama a lot on this blog. That's not because of any preference for either candidate's political views, but because those two candidates in this year's US presidential election made the most compelling and successful use of online tools as integral parts of their campaigns. Obama, for example, formed his own social network, while Paul even has an iPhone site. Could it be, though, that Ron Paul's online success is owed less to any great understanding of how social networking works, but rather to a an understanding of motivational psychology?

Speaking at the Politics Online conference in Washington, DC yesterday, Justine Lam, the internet director of the Ron Paul campaign, seemed to imply that the creation of the grassroots campaign around Paul was a happy accident, and the use of the campaign was more about psychology than anything else. Micah Sifry has great notes on Lam's talk over on the TechPresident blog.

The main reason people were attracted to Paul, according to Lam, was because his message was so radically different from the rest of the Republican field. Early on, the campaign decided to take the opposite route from Obama in organizing online support. Where Obama turned his site into an organized, central social network, Paul's campaign used their site as a hub for pointing to various activities organized by the grassroots.

Though the campaign didn't manage it, the burgeoning grassroots support network responded to the call to organize themselves and famously began to overwhelm social media and news sites like YouTube and Digg with Ron Paul items. Seeing the fervor that was building among their core supporters, the campaign decided to see if they could harness it for fundraising purposes.

Last August, they held a contest to see which Paul Meetup group could raise the most money. Though the campaign raised $500,000, smaller groups complained that it was unfair -- they could never compete. So the Paul campaign changed its tack and asked supporters to try to meet certain fundraising goals. They used classic methods of motivation: putting people's names on screen, using a thermometer graphic to measure growth, and play to the crowd mentality.

The rub is that Paul's success -- at least financially -- is owed less to some magical new use of the Internet, but rather tapping into a support network that grew up organically around the campaign by using traditional motivational psychology. By setting specific goals, they were able to narrow the attention of supporters and direct people toward a set activity. According to Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, people have a specific need for achievement, respect, and the realization of their full potential. Playing off those needs, the Paul campaign was able to motivate people toward specific goals and keep energy among core supporters high.

This, of course, is not unique in politics. Every campaign utilized the same basic tactics. The difference was that Paul relied more heavily on letting the community organize the effort. This perhaps led to what social psychologist Gustave Le Bon would call "group mind," in which the crowd exerts influence over its members. Or in other words, the crowd acts on its own. That actually might have helped the Paul campaign reach its goals because it energized the grassroots to act as a single group with a uniform goal.

It also had drawbacks, however. Similar to how web sites that rely on user generated content cede a lot of power to users, Paul's network of grassroots supporters had a perhaps undue amount of power over the campaign. As Lam noted, for example, one of the things the grassroots network dreamed up was raising money for a blimp. The Paul campaign would have preferred to use the money on TV and radio advertisements, but the blimp idea caught on with supporters and they couldn't stop it (and dared not try).

In the end, Paul's success came down to two things: the emergence of a grassroots support network, presumably because of the uniqueness of his message compared with those of his opponents, and the use of basic motivational psychology techniques to encourage that grassroots network to organize itself. While Internet tools certainly helped to make that organization happen more easily and allowed message delivery to happen more quickly, I'm not sure they prompted anything very radical in terms of how the campaign was managed.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image via Steak Rules.