How the Internet Put Barack Obama in the White House

Cross-posted on techPresident

Barack Obama elected president in 2008? Inconceivable without the internet — and that’s not just a web-guy’s brag. Sarah Lai Stirland has already wrapped up online technology’s critical role in the mechanics of Obama’s campaign in admirable fashion, but that leaves us free to focus instead on the timing. I’d argue that at four points in the campaign, online politics really MATTERED — it effectively saved the Obama campaign. At those moments, without the internet the presidential race could easily have turned down a very different road, one that WOULDN’T lead to an Obama White House. To begin, let’s look at the earliest days of campaign ’08.

Part 1: In The Beginning

When the presidential campaign began in earnest early in 2007, the Democratic side had two candidates: Hillary Clinton and everyone else. I’m exaggerating of course, but in many people’s eyes, she clearly had the nomination sewed up: she’d locked-in the traditional big donors and was already getting endorsements by the score from superdelegates-to-be. By contrast, Obama was just another senator — Chris Dodd with a tan, a thin resume and a couple of Facebook Groups.

But he DID have those Facebook Groups, along with a big internet technology budget and a plan to raise money online to pay for it and everything else in his campaign. His online buzz (including sweet ObamaGirl) helped fuel early positive media coverage, but it was the fundraising that made the political professionals take notice. Even in the first quarter of 2007 Obama was outraising Clinton online, but in the second quarter of that year he really blew her out of the water, raising a third more than she in total. In the process, he built the base of a small-donor list that would eventually number in the millions — people he could go back to over and over for money, up to and including the last days of the campaign.

Did the internet “make” Barack Obama in early 2007? No, but it DID raise him above the pack, which is what he needed at the time. As the primaries drew closer, media coverage would inevitably center on a handful of “favorites,” and he needed to be one of them: ask Dodd, Biden, Richardson and Kucinich how hard it is to dig out of the “and also running for President” cellar once you’re there. The buzz plus the fundraising provided an opportunity, despite the occasional stumble and the beginnings of the “celebrity” meme, and they combined with solid debate and other public performances to place him alongside Edwards and Clinton in the ranks of Top Candidates. In the meantime, Obama was building the network of grassroots organizers that would see him through the next pivotal time — right after Super Tuesday.

Part 2: The Caucuses

Obama excelled at winning caucuses, and it saved him after Super Tuesday. If you’ll remember, on that day Clinton took the major states and Obama mostly the smaller ones, denying him the quick victory the pundits thought essential. Immediately a narrative sprang up — Obama was faltering, Hillary still had a lead in delegates, and hope for a new generation of Democratic leadership was looking audacious indeed.

What happened next? Obama continued to rake in money, and he also won ten-odd contests in a row — accumulating the small lead in delegates that he would hold until Clinton finally suspended her campaign months later. Most of these victories came in caucus states, and he won them because of an online-driven field organization. Simply put, he knew how to get enough people motivated and in the right place to dominate the vote at their local caucus meetings.

Those victories (including one in Texas, where Clinton won the concurrent primary election) provided our first real glimpse of the strength of Obama’s “ground game,” organized largely via email and the MyBarackObama toolkit. Iowa may have been an exception (he probably could have won it with the ‘net, considering his “neighbor bonus” and the Iowa tradition of strong face-to-face fieldwork), but no one matched his ability to turn out supporters down the road and dominate later caucuses.

After Super Tuesday, while Clinton’s campaign was functionally shot, Obama was already moving smoothly into an attritional war, one in which the ‘net provided a critical edge. As Obama staff described this past summer, the MyBarackObama tools were vital, since they let volunteers create the initial supporter networks which paid staff could then use once they arrived in the state. Online volunteer organizing essentially built the campaign a structure in places where it didn’t exist, letting paid staff parachute in and immediately take command of a working political army. Without his internet-organized volunteer network and the online donors who kept on giving throughout the same period, Obama could easily have flashed and disappeared — a Gary Hart rather than a JFK. Instead, he persevered even through some rough times ahead.

Part 3: The Doldrums

Ah, the dark months of March and April, when the Obama campaign seemed a prisoner of gaffes and forces beyond its control. “Bittergate” took on a life of its own, rural America thought he was a secret Muslim, Pennsylvania rejected him outright, and his own preacher made his life hell. Grim times, and more than one commentator thought Obama wouldn’t survive them.

Guess what? Once again, the donors and the volunteers stuck with him — he continued to raise money hand over fist (it helps to have unpopular enemies) and his campaign workers didn’t seem to miss a beat. The rest we know, and it’s a storyline familiar from the earlier string of caucus victories — Obama stayed in the race, organized and advertised like crazy in later primary states and eventually prevailed. Once again, his online network and his massive supporter list had saved him. And even then, Obama was preparing for the campaign’s final phase.

Part 4: The End Game

Amateurs may argue tactics, but professionals talk logistics — it’s a classic observation about military history and equally true about politics. We can talk all day about the wisdom of McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin, or about his bizarre campaign “suspension” during the financial crisis this Fall, or about his erratic messaging strategy, and for good reason — they mattered. But did they matter as much as the fact that John McCain was outspent four or five-to-one in the general election?

Obama started advertising in Florida last JULY, for God’s sake, and his final country-wide ad blitz absolutely overwhelmed anything McCain could put up in response. Just as it’s meaningless to re-fight World War 2 academically without noting that the Soviets built five times as many tanks as the Germans or that the Americans built even more, we can’t talk about Obama’s victory last night without considering the incredible resource imbalance that assured it. Virginia? Colorado? Nevada? Ohio? Those are the fruits of online fundraising.

But Obama’s advantage wasn’t just financial — McCain was out-run on the ground as well as out-spent on the air. As John Dickerson notes, “According to exit polls, 27 percent of voters said they were contacted by the Obama camp. Only 19 percent say they were contacted by the McCain camp.” That’s the result of the work of millions of block-walkers, phone-bankers, email-forwarders, Facebook-status-changers, and parent-pesterers, as well as the tens of millions of dollars needed to fund their activities and the online system that organized them.

In other words, Obama’s decision to opt out of the public campaign financing system was THE decisive moment of the campaign, and his immense treasury the atomic bomb of this political war. Without his vast array of small donors and the resources they provided, he’d have been trapped fighting in the same handful of states as the doomed John Kerry. And that may well have yielded a President McCain.

A Model for Online Politics?

Last winter, I asked if the Obama campaign would turn out to be a model for online campaigning. Clearly the answer would be “yes” — political professionals will no doubt try to replicate his success for years to come. The next question is, do we want it to be? Is this new political machine the way we SHOULD elect a president, or anyone else for that matter? Populism turns to demagoguery faster than you can say Huey Long, and the tools don’t care who uses them. Progressives beware — the next candidate-of-the-people may not have a message that’s as sweet to your ears as the sound of hope.


Written by
Colin Delany
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