July 28th, 2008
Hey John, how’s things? Crazy year, eh? Sorry about last week — you must have been dying inside as the press fawned all over that pipsqueak Barack Obama on his overseas jaunt. Reporters are YOUR base, after all, and what’s worse is that you know you created the moment in the first place by making such a big deal about his “need” to go abroad. In any case, it’s always ugly to see the old reliable standard cast aside in favor of someone new and young and vibrant, but you know in your heart that it’s poetic justice as well — which may help explain your campaign’s undercurrent of bitterness against TV and print reporters last week. Junior Varsity Squad? Harsh!
Here’s the thing: you’ve benefited more from a tight relationship with reporters than just about anyone else in public life, but you don’t necessarily NEED them anymore. You’re on the right track now, since I’ve heard stories that you’re fixin’ to start using the Interweb. After a little time online, you might just notice a damn useful feature of new media: their ability to bypass traditional information gatekeepers.
I hate to bring him up again, but let’s look at Obama’s experience in the past 18 months. Online demand (Facebook groups and more) helped create the initial buzz around his candidacy even before he declared, and his success at getting money out of small online donors made the political establishment take him seriously. But here’s the critical part for you right now: remember when his campaign seemed to falter after Hillary Clinton won some big primaries on Super Tuesday? His news coverage swung sharply negative, with the punditocracy immediately questioning his ability to beat Clinton over the long term — and that was BEFORE the Reverend Wright took over the airwaves. Yet despite the carping, Obama went on to win 10-odd smaller contests in a row and continued to dominate the money race.
The trick was that he didn’t need the mainstream media as much as past politicians in the broadcast age, because he’d built an army of supporters with whom he could communicate directly — using the internet. Those caucus victories after Super Tuesday? Largely turned out via online means, including email, social networking site messages and distributed phone banks (supporters on their own cell phones, armed with downloaded call lists). The precious cash that funded ad blitzes in late-voting states like North Carolina and Indiana? Ditto.
This Spring, Obama could even disintermediate the new bosses by going around online gatekeepers to reach their audiences directly — and we can both chuckle at the thought of Lefty bloggers finding themselves in danger of being left Out Of The Loop. His base of support has only grown since: the MyBarackObama “social network” (currently with a million-odd members) gets all the attention, but his email list contains on the order of EIGHT MILLION people right now. In a country in which around 120 million people are likely to vote in November, that’s A LOT of persuaders out there prepared to act on his behalf — just about all of us will have someone in our lives making his case before election day.
So John, here we are in late July, but perhaps we’re really in the Autumn of a political career. 2000 was your year, but those Bushie bastards cheated you out of South Carolina, and the rest was history (tragedy AND farce in equal measures, but the tragedy is what will endure). Instead of spending the next eight years building your own independent base of support, you tucked yourself firmly in bed with the Republican establishment, fostered good relations with the media (I loved you all those times on The Daily Show) and hoped for the best. By now, the outlines of an alternate way to reach the top may seem clear — nice work with video last week, for instance, firing up the conservative base with some anti-liberal-media messaging.
But also by now Obama has the traditional advantages of an early-to-market internet startup — not only has he had a year and a half to build those online numbers, but he’s really had a year and a half to build RELATIONSHIPS with his supporters and bring them firmly on board. Unfortunately for your campaign, you’re starting from way behind, and decent battleground poll numbers this far out can’t give much true solace.
In every crucial state, and in plenty that you wouldn’t expect, Barack Obama will fill the airwaves this Fall with supporter-funded commercials (you may want to buy a portable Tivo), and millions of his internet-organized supporters are going to be walking blocks and calling neighbors up until election day. So John, Senator McCain, my (unsolicited) advice to you would be to build an online infrastructure that will allow you to tap the same breadth and depth of political passion. But, I think I’d need a time machine to deliver it at a point at which it would have made much of a difference.