The internet and the vote

Almost a year ago, at the beginning of the presidential campaign, I put forward an argument against the conventional wisdom that states “that the internet has not yet reached its peak of influence and probably won’t reach that peak before Nov. 2008, but maybe the during the cycle after that we will start to see the internet come into its own as the central medium for political discussion.” My argument was twofold:

1) The internet has flourished across the demographic spectrum. As far as market penetration, the internet is ready to compete with established media sources.

“… it is simply inappropriate to appeal to the discrepancies between political discussions on the internet and other media sources as evidence that the internet is out of touch with the general population.”

2) The apparent power of the mainstream media is a self-fulfilling illusion. This illusion can be broken by simply ignoring its influence, and instead appealing to the internet.

The internet must stop making excuses for its perceived impotence and realize that the conditions are already in place for a dramatic shift in the balance of power… I believe the public is sympathetic to these appeals and are ready for an alternative framework. This framework is already largely in motion on the internet.

I admit, the argument seemed rather idealistic at the time, or at least implausible. The conventional wisdom was strong; the internet was not ready.

But even though the primaries have yet to be decided, I think I can safely say that I was right even back in June of ’07. Specifically, Obama has been running his campaign using the internet as the primary means of communication, exactly as I suggested. Consider, for instance, his recently released fundraising numbers:

Online Fundraising:

* More than $45 million raised online in February [out of $55 million total, or almost 82%]

* More than 90% of online donations were $100 or less

* More than 50% of online donations were $25 or less

* More than 75% of online donors in February were first-time online donors

* More than a third of those new online donors in February went on to engage in volunteer activity on (planning their own offline events, making phone calls from home, joining local grassroots volunteer groups) |via TPM|

The last statistic is most impressive, especially to the cynics who deride internet slacktivism. Obama has used the structure of the internet to appeal directly to the people running his campaign, and he has managed an image that is sleek, professional, and appeals to the participatory nature of the internet.

Ironically, the established media sources construed this as a ‘media deficit‘ and complain about Obama’s unwillingness to engage the traditional media machine. When Obama fails to control the news cycles, they reason, he is showing his lack of experience and inability to deal with the realities of a media driven politics. Contrast Obama’s apparent media ‘woes’ with Clinton’s use of Drudge and other intermediaries to shape the mainstream media narrative with amazing agility. Under the assumption that the mainstream media sources, and particularly cable news, are the power centers that drive the narrative of the campaigns, Obama’s comparative unease at dealing with the news media seems provincial.

What the traditional media doesn’t understand is that Obama can connect with his supporters without routing that discussion through the lazy, ratings-starved media. In the new political environment blossoming on the net, the media no longer mediates. So Obama can, with very little cost, almost entirely ignore the media circus, and instead engage his supporters and his opponent directly and on his own terms.

And the strategy is paying off.

I’m going to close with the Rolling Stone cover article on Obama which makes the same point in a round-about way. Right now I think we are too infatuated with the candidates and the political ramifications of their actions; once this settles down we will see more sober reflections on the the internet itself as a primary medium of political acitivism. Whether or not Obama makes it is besides the point. We will look back on the 2008 primary season as the defining moment in shaping the new media world, where the internet takes center stage as a legitimate political force.

the Obama campaign has shattered the top-down, command-and-control, broadcast-TV model that has dominated American politics since the early 1960s. “They have taken the bottom-up campaign and absolutely perfected it,” says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Dean’s Internet campaign in 2004. “It’s light-years ahead of where we were four years ago. They’ll have 100,000 people in a state who have signed up on their Web site and put in their zip code. Now, paid organizers can get in touch with people at the precinct level and help them build the organization bottom up. That’s never happened before. It never was possible before.”

“We’re seeing the last time a top-down campaign has a chance to win it,” says Trippi. “There won’t be another campaign that makes the same mistake the Clintons made of being dependent on big donors and insiders. It’s not going to work ever again.”


  1. Hmmm but then there are examples where this net fund raising has not lead to success like for Ron Paul. OR even Howard Dean back in ’04. Perhaps it’s the message and not the method of transmission that’s important … but that might be too idealistic.

  2. First of all, Ron Paul would have been entirely invisible without internet support. The only reason he made headlines was because of the millions of dollars (and blimps) he was raising from internet communities.

    But my argument is not that the internet guarantees success. That’s just stupid. My argument is simply that the Internet is ready to be a primary vehicle for political campaigning. Paul’s fund raising campaign flourished despite being consistently shunned by the mainstream media simply because he was able to exploit the resources of the net.

    Second of all, Internet wasn’t ready for politics back in 04. Dean was definitely responsible for laying the groundwork for the netroots that was came into its own during the Obama campaign, but Dean couldn’t rest on the net for a base of support. Obama can, and has, and has been amazingly successful with this strategy.

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