My perception of the technological literacy of 2008’s presidential campaign was certainly colored by my own bias about the candidates. I can admit that. I remember McCain’s 2008 quote, now infamous in online circles: “I’m an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get.” He later added he “never felt the particular need to e-mail.” My mind tells me McCain would have been a competent president despite his disinterest in new media; he attained his rank and status in our nation’s government through commitment and hard work, despite a closed-mindedness toward advancing technologies. My heart tells me his unwillingness to embrace an opportunity to more closely interact with regular citizens might have made him a poor choice to lead America into the new millennium.
Joe Rospars, Obama’s ‘new media’ manager for the 2008 campaign, recently spoke about the President’s expanded strategy for securing support of an online base during the campaign. Also a big softie, Rospers believed ‘heart’ was what made Obama’s online campaign so successful. I really think it might have been Obama’s omnipresence on the World Wide Web during the bitter primaries and endless general election. Rospars even boasted about the billion minutes of video, which included everything from campaign supporter biographies to inspirational montages that encouraged donations. The mantra of “CHANGE” was chiseled into our skulls by cutting edge Web 2.0 sites that dripped with professional polish.
Rospars referred to a desire by the campaign to open a “new channel” through which to speak to supporters and credited the weblog portion of the campaign site with being the “glue” which held the online community together. The campaign spoke of opening new channels of dialogue, which it certainly did, but the prospects for mobilizing a previously latent faction of young voters were also major goals of the campaign. Online fund-raising was so successful that Obama became the first major party presidential nominee to deny public financing for his campaign. Of course, John McCain’s campaign pushed back in the online arena, but it seemed obvious that the candidate’s heart wasn’t in it.
For Obama’s 2012 presidential race, he needs to stick to the online formula that was so successful enabling his 2008 victory. As his online campaign manager, I would again use the blog structure as the mother tree for online supporters. Not only does a blog format allow for immediate feedback and communication between subscribers, it offers ample space for whomever wants to contribute to air his (or her) opinion among other similarly-aligned people. The resonance created by a self-selecting group of millions can be a very powerful force for national elections. Unfortunately, political mob mentality gets people elected in America… though this effect is only amplified, not created, by campaigns in the global village.
Now that Republicans have begun to understand that future political battles will be fought with HTML, both parties will be throwing more and more resources at their own manufactured online melodramas.
User-controlled media will continue to become more important to the success of national campaigns. Sites like Youtube and Facebook are very familiar to young voters and represent a major part of their lives outside of politics. To be able to insert an ad, speech, or other political message into websites that are routine stops for millions of people is as powerful a tool for representative democracy as has ever been imagined. Whether our culture will use the new media to wisely make political decisions is still anybody’s guess.
Flashy banner ads and quick videos presenting political gaffes or attack ads serve only to cheapen the online experience and should be minimized. Young voters are smarter than is generally admitted, and we can detect a flame war from miles away. Issues should be presented simply and directly. Long past are the days of the three-network captive audience. Nowadays, if a media consumer detects bullsh*t, he moves on to watch a cat riding a Roomba while punching a dog.
Obama will first need to locate some laurels to rest upon for his 2012 re-election, but as long as he sticks to the issues and avoids losing the rapport he created online with his base, his campaign might once again find the momentum it needs to keep him in office for another four years.