Learning from Obama: How to Move Forward

The Conclusion of a six-part series

As the presidential race heated up, the internet grew from being the medium of a core group of political junkies to a gateway for millions of ordinary Americans to participate in the political process, donating odd amounts of their spare time to their candidate through online campaign tools. Obama’s campaign carefully designed its web site to maximize group collaboration, while at the same time giving individual volunteers tasks they could follow on their own schedules.

“Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency,” Sarah Lai Stirland, Wired.com, 11/4/2008

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For all their zeal and the sophistication of the tools they had at hand, Obama’s supporters weren’t the only ones active online in 2008, nor was he the only candidate willing to trust ordinary people to carry his message. Ron Paul’s supporters made an early splash, swarming internet discussion groups and the comments sections of national news outlets. Plus, they raised tens of millions of dollars over the web, pushing the former Libertarian far ahead of his Republican rivals on that score in the last quarter of 2007. But Paul was a classic niche candidate, whose support would never spread far beyond a relatively narrow circle of activists. His online prominence serves mainly as an example of the internet’s ability to amplify the collective voice of a small number of passionate people.

Every presidential candidate from Mitt Romney to Mike Gravel had a presence of some kind online regardless of how well they actually used it, though none built anything as comprehensive as Obama’s. But even the best campaigns — including his — were doomed to be overshadowed at times by the voices of an unruly public. Despite the professionals’ best efforts, the audience kept stealing the spotlight from the actors.

For instance, every serious candidate suffered from some piece of unflattering content spread online from person to person: McCain sang “Bomb, Bomb Iran,” Edwards had his two-minute hair-brushing episode, Clinton was greeted with children and flowers while landing “under sniper fire,” and a comparison of Mitt Romney’s past and current statements on abortion rights made for a fascinating study in contrast. Barack Obama was certainly not immune, particularly since his background set him up for persistent attempts to identify him as “other.”

In June, the alleged Obama “terrorist fist bump” went from viral to The View in just three days. Fortunately, the candidate was able to laugh it off, which was certainly not the case after the Rev. Wright videos went viral — another example of the unpredictable power of Web politics. More evidence: After wrapping up the nomination in June 2008, the Obama campaign launched an extensive Web site devoted solely to shooting down viral rumors and innuendo.

“Obama, The ‘Revolution’ in Online Politics — And What Happens Next,” Greg Mitchell, Huffington Post, 2/4/2009

That website launched for a good reason, since the most serious danger Barack Obama faced after he’d outlasted Hillary Clinton in the primaries was this: that he would become seen as alien in enough people’s eyes that his hopes of capturing the political middle would fail. “Change” candidates have a particular need to convince voters that they’re a safe choice, as Reagan’s experience in 1980 shows — he ran very close with Carter until the debates, which allowed him to convince enough Americans that he wasn’t a crazed bomb-thrower. This burden of reassurance is even heavier for someone young, and (especially) for a candidate identified as black.

The Reverend Wright videos were therefore a tremendous danger, though of course Obama never appeared in them himself — it was the association with radicalism (and with Radical Blackness) that mattered. But at least they set him up for his speech on race, one of the defining moments in his delicate assault on the American middle, and in that sense were a blessing in disguise. The Obama-is-a-Muslim emails were more insidious, since their effect had to be countered one-at-a-time rather than through a nationally televised speech, and the very act of denying them seemed to give them more credence in some people’s eyes. Even months into his presidency, a significant slice of Americans persisted in believing that Barack Obama was either a secret Muslim or had been lying about his religious faith in some way.

As the Macaca moment showed in 2006, unflattering content can spread particularly far and fast when it gets caught in a feedback loop involving citizen journalists, corporate media outlets and the campaigns themselves:

Early in the final Obama-McCain showdown, a leading campaign charge from the Democrats was that the Republican wanted to stay in Iraq “for 100 years.” What was the source for this? An amateur video of McCain making a remark to that effect at a small campaign gathering months earlier, spread widely on the Web — in the usual fashion, first by liberal bloggers, then by the Obama campaign itself. Soon it turned up frequently on network and cable TV shows and even in Democratic commercials.

“Obama, The ‘Revolution’ in Online Politics — And What Happens Next,” Greg Mitchell, Huffington Post, 2/4/2009

At times, the campaigns resembled ships on storm-toss’d seas, reeling from wave upon wave of words and images, occasionally buoyed up but more often all but drowned. The sheer volume of content that burst forth about the U.S. elections is astonishing, not least because of how much we have come to take it for granted. You don’t have to be very old to remember a completely different political environment.

The first political campaign I paid close attention to was in 1992, when I was right out of college and working in Texas politics. My information sources? The three major networks and PBS (plus CNN when I was around a tv that actually had cable) and the Austin American-Statesman. Maybe the New York Times when I bought it at a coffeeshop over the weekend. Once the Sunday morning news shows were over, that was essentially it for substantive political coverage until CNN’s Inside Politics the next day…

Now? Political junkies can check dozens or hundreds of news sources every hour, both corporate-owned and informal. Cable news and talk radio have expanded dramatically, and they’ve joined with hundreds of thousands of online news outlets, advocacy sites, political blogs, email lists, podcasts and vodcasts to bombard us with information to the point that the problem isn’t too little, but too much. From juicy scandals to the details of polling data and methodology, very few potential stories remain unexamined by somebody somewhere, and the biggest obstacle to a story’s breaking big isn’t the major-media filters but the difficulty of cutting through the cacophony and the clutter.

Of course this is obvious, but perhaps it’s so obvious that we tend to forget about it. Internet political professionals often concentrate our attention on the particular tools we use to get our messages out, but the real effect of the Internet and the electronics explosion of the last 15 years has been the immense deepening and broadening of the sea of information in which we now swim. Our biggest task is just to get noticed as we drift along.

“What We Can Learn About Online Politics From the 2006 Campaign,” Epolitics.com, 11/8/2006

Future candidates and causes will face this problem no less, and many will sink without a ripple for every one that sails triumphantly into harbor. For online communicators trying to navigate rough waters, the Obama campaign will serve as a beacon for years to come — both a model and a guide — and an example of the potential of technology to translate the enthusiasm of millions of people into decisive action in the real world.

A Crystal Ball is a Dangerous Toy

The Obama campaign leveraged all the tools of social media to give ordinary Americans access to resources usually reserved for professional campaign operatives. Compared with both his Democratic primary challengers and the McCain campaign, his operation was cycles ahead.

“The Social Pulpit: Barack Obama’s Social Media Toolkit,” Edelman Digital Public Affairs, January 2009

“Obama built largest recognizable brand faster than anyone in history, with his supporters feeling that they had influence on that brand.”

Michael Bassik, speaking at the 2009 South by Southwest Interactive conference

My friend Nate Wilcox likes to talk about the internet giving rise to a new form of machine politics, one built on distributed armies of online activists. This model contrasts with the classic 19th century-style American political machine, which was locally based: each thrived when it could deliver government services and political patronage in exchange for votes in a given city or neighborhood.

The urban political machine largely wilted away in the 20th century, and for a variety of reasons so did much of citizens’ direct involvement in the political process. By the 1990s, they weren’t seriously expected to participate substantively in politics at all, at least in most campaign professionals’ minds. A voter’s role began and ended on election day, and he or she was otherwise mostly just a target — of direct mail, pre-recorded phone calls, and an endless array of repetitive TV commercials.

The internet, though, is a different KIND of medium — back-and-forth rather than broadcast — and the rise of such a participatory public space has completely changed the political media ecology, opening new niches to be exploited in turn by new kinds of organizing entities. Nate’s 21st-century political machines would be a nimble breed, assembling to back a candidate or cause and maintaining influence to the extent that their supporters stay engaged, involved and active. Some campaigns would be ephemeral, others would endure, but in most cases their limiting resource would be time — not necessarily their own, since staff can be bought, but that of individual people willing to donate a piece of their lives to what they see as a greater good.

Here’s the thing: despite all the attention paid to the internet’s potential for political outreach, it’s an even better mobilizing tool. Television is still the best way to reach that great mass of potential voters who are NOT political junkies; it’s a road running straight toward the Holy Grail of American presidential politics, the Independent Voter. Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign spent the bulk of its budget on television advertising, even though the money came in online, because they knew that TV commercials remain the most efficient way to reach the uncommitted and uninvolved.

But note what those Obama ads did: besides reinforcing the necessary imagery for that day and locale, they also directed people to go to a website for more information. They were recruiting tools, not just messaging tools, and like radio ads, direct mail, phone calls and an afternoon knock on the door, they played their part in building Obama’s 13-million-member database.

Once people joined that list, as we’ve seen, each became an outpost — a nexus for organizing within a social circle. Elections are won at the water cooler, at the bar, at the dinner table, over the phone and in bed, and Obama’s supporters were primed to know the messages, know the strategy and understand the stakes every time his candidacy came up in conversation.

His online supporters were actually involved in what amounted to a carefully managed relationship with Barack Obama whether they realized it or not, one nurtured by a team of people whose lives revolved around that goal for almost two years. In the process, the Obama organization achieved both a scale and a level of effectiveness unlike any electoral campaign we’ve ever seen, and all because of one basic idea: that you can trust people to work on your behalf if you give them the tools and the training.

The campaign had the vision and the technology, while the activists provided the energy and the ceaseless work — they were Obama’s key resource, the fuel for his entire ship. As Republican strategist Mark McKinnon put it at a 2009 South by Southwest panel discussion, Obama (and Howard Dean before him) weren’t successful because they understood computers, they “were successful because they understood how to make technology harness the passion of their supporters.”

Stephen Geer, the Obama campaign’s email team leader, applied the pith of a veteran writer to the same dynamic: “You develop a strong connection with your supporters and you give them something to do about it.” The result, as the world now knows: an election victory for Barack Obama, a sea change in American politics and policy, and a model for online campaigners around the world. Not bad for some guy from Illinois with big ears and a funny name.

A Note About Sources

Where possible, I’ve linked to the relevant sources within the text of this series, and much of the material printed here derives from either the articles quoted or from other pieces listed in the Essential Reading. Members of Obama’s campaign staff were notoriously reluctant to comment until after the election, however, and much discussion of the campaign before November of 2008 was based on what outsiders could see or on the rare glimpses given to professional journalists along the way. A more complete version had to await the lifting of the gag rule, though the Obamans are still a tight-lipped bunch eight months after the election.

Much of the inside information on the campaign’s organizing model and internal structure, along with the extended discussion of email fundraising strategy, derives from talks given by Joe Rospars, Stephen Geer, Chris Hughes, Judith Freeman, Scott Goodstein and others at the 2008 Netroots Nation conference, the 2009 South by Southwest conference, the Politics Online conference, various DC-based post-election panels, and in particular RootsCamp ’08 and other New Organizing Institute-sponsored events. Notes are available upon request, other than for hallway conversations and other moments strictly on background.

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Written by
Colin Delany
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