Just as President Barack Obama has shaken up the status quo in his first 100 days in office, his campaign overturned old formulas about how to win the presidency. The Obama campaign did not focus only on battleground states, but instead charged into states that previously had been solidly Republican turf. With a historic economic collapse unfolding during the final months of the election, a crucial number of swing voters voted, not necessarily for Obama, but against the Republicans and the Bush administration, and in the process transformed the ‘Red vs. Blue’ political map. In the post-World War II period, American voters have tended to throw out the incumbent party every eight years, so at this stage, no political analyst can say if this transformation will prove to be deep and wide or is merely a temporary changing of the guard. But no question Team Obama has, to some extent, rewritten the campaign playbook, and future campaigns will be measured against this trendsetter.
One of the winning campaign strategies masterfully deployed by the Obama campaign was its use of the internet. More than any other previous campaign, the Obama campaign showed the tremendous mobilising and fundraising potential of a comprehensive internet strategy. Some are saying that Obama’s use of this still relatively new medium will change American politics the way John F. Kennedy’s use of television did. But it remains to be seen if a less charismatic candidate without a wind of change blowing through an electorate buffeted by economic crisis can replicate Obama’s success.
Nevertheless, what the Obama campaign accomplished using the internet was stunningly impressive. Despite the United States lagging in broadband access compared to Europe or Japan, both in terms of the number of people with fast, affordable broadband access and the speed of the connections, the Obama campaign used the internet to organise his supporters in a way that in the past would have required an army of volunteers and paid organisers on the ground. This not only helped him in the November election against the Republican nominee John McCain, but was probably the decisive factor in his Democratic primary contest against Hillary Clinton. Both the Clinton and McCain campaigns used the internet to reach voters, but Obama mastered the medium early and exploited it brilliantly. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that without the internet, Barack Obama would not have won the Democratic primary, and would not have been elected President.
The Big Mo: Internet Mobilisation and Social Networking
In the primary season, both the fundraising and the mobilising potential of the internet provided key advantages for Obama. His campaign started from scratch early in 2007 with few resources and little name recognition, but the internet helped him connect to his core supporters in cost-effective ways. Many of his campaign’s early efforts were low-overhead strategies that utilised free resources. His nimble use of the internet helped him overcome the huge initial lead of Hillary Clinton in both fundraising and perceived viability. He was able to get more local volunteers on the ground in key states earlier than the Clinton campaign, which was especially important in smaller states and caucus states. And his early success soon generated a wave of small-size campaign contributions which eventually gave him a crucial advantage in campaign organisation and advertising over the Clinton campaign, which also raised a large sum of money but mainly from large donors.