Use of technology in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest

Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004 unlocked politicos imagination about the power of online politics to shape the race.

While Dean’s bid imploded with his Iowa rant, Dean’s rapidly growing Meetup.com following in the campaign’s early days convinced the media that Dean was a rising force. The Economist in a story this week notes that Dean “changed the way campaigns are organised. Using social-networking tools, Ron Paul’s supporters generated a “money bomb”–$6m in one day, shattering the previous record. Huck’s Army, an online network of Mike Huckabee’s supporters, rallied 12,000 campaign volunteers. Both networks meant that Mr Paul and Mr Huckabee stayed in the race a lot longer than they might otherwise have done….

“Mr Obama took it another step, raising more money–seen in real time–from the grassroots than any campaign ever. In June alone he raised a near-record $52m, of which $31m were donations of $200 or less. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, says that he has “succeeded in translating what was happening online to getting the vote out”. Mr Obama has 1.3m supporters on Facebook, a popular social-networking site; John McCain has only about 200,000…The Democrat is using Twitter, a social-networking and micro-blogging service featuring instant messaging (each answer, or “twit”, is limited to 140 characters). By signing up to Mr Obama’s twitters, the campaign at once signs up to yours.”

And this go-round, YouTube is placing a newly important role. Will.i.am’s (of the Black-eyed Peas) “Yes we can” video has gotten some 9m views in six months

and the McCain Girls’ “Raining McCain” video got 1.9 million hits in 4 months. Obama’s videos on his YouTube channel garned 52m views to McCain’s 9.5m on his channel. Several million of McCain’s hits came from his sleazy campaign comparing Obama to Paris Hilton ; which inspired Barack to launch his “Low Road Express” (mocking McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” mantra). Even Paris Hilton hit back at “white-haired dude” McCain with her bikini-clad bid for the “pink house.”

Barack’s speech on race in America has been viewed 4.7m times on YouTube in its entirety, while Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary sermons have also been seen by millions. YouTube moderated highly interactive debates among Republicans and Democrats during the primaries, and has now asked YouTube users to submit 2-minute videos explaining why they support McCain or Obama (with the prize being a trip to the convention).

And it is not just YouTube. The conventions promise to also feature”Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, My Space profiles and Flickr…” Obama sent an e-mail one week ago to supporters indicating that they could sign up to be the first (several million?) to receive an email or a text announcing his choice for vice president.  The real benefit of getting this million person list will come near Election Day: “What Obama is creating is this army of individuals, these grass-roots activists, who are out there trying to change the world in 160 characters or less,” said David All, a Republican techno-political strategist.

It appears clear that something transformative is happening, but not enough careful research has helped us to understand the social consequences of this media, other than the fact that YouTube and cellphone cameras mean that future candidates will have ever diminished chances of privacy without one mistake being aired for everyone to see.

But will the new technologies help to stoke the 9-11 Generation’s interest in politics (that Bob Putnam and I have written about). Will the technology enhance people’s ability to make connections with others active in the campaign or weaken those ties relative to “old-world” technologies of political parties and rallies and door-knocking? Will the technology make us more likely to stay involved after the campaign or not (evidence on the latter front may come from a September poll issued by the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Index for 2008)? And will the new technology exacerbate class and racial gaps in the patterns of political participation (or see this link) or ameliorate them? Brave new worlds indeed….

For full article, see Economist’s “Technology and the campaigns: Flickring here, twittering there” (August 16, 2008), including the fact that more of the online role comes from the millennials (those born between 1978 and 1996) who comprise 50m voters, are 90% online and two-thirds of whom are on social networking sites.

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2 responses to “Use of technology in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest

  1. If indeed Obama pulls it off in November, he will owe a great deal to the groundwork that Howard Dean laid. Hope he gets a nice cabinet spot.

  2. Imagine the possibilities if Obama used Twitter to rally the forces.

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