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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Obama mastered the Web and modern media

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Sun. Nov. 9 - The 2008 election marks the year that digital politics finally achieved its full potential. For many political junkies, the Web, with its constant stream of election information and interactivity, was the best place to follow the campaign. Furthermore, the election marked the convergence of the old broadcast media and the new Web-based media. As more than one commentator has noted, in 2008, the old divisions, e.g., online vs. off, pop culture vs. civic culture, have been blurred to the point of disappearance.

No candidate used the Web better than President-elect Barack Obama. His adept use of the Web allowed him to rewrite many of the rules by which modern American presidential campaigns are waged.

The impact of technology on Obama's campaign cannot be overstated. It has helped him to reach new voters, organize events and gather supporters, generate record amounts of cash, and get his message out without the filter of the mainstream media.

Exit polls indicate that Obama gained the support of 66 percent of the 18-29 voter age group versus 32 percent for John McCain. He did even better among first-time voters, receiving 69 percent of their votes compared to 30 percent for Sen. McCain.

By contrast, John Kerry won only 54 percent of the youth vote and 53 percent of first-time voters in 2004.

In no small part, Obama's remarkable success among young people owes to the fact that he reached them where they congregate in cyberspace: MySpace, Facebook and YouTube. His campaign also adroitly used text messaging as a tool to get in touch and stay in touch with young voters. Most of the social networking sites that Obama used to great effect either did not exist or were in their infancy in 2004.

Obama also used text messages and social networking sites to organize big, well-attended events, such as the one that drew 100,000 people to the Arch grounds on Oct. 18. The rallies themselves were opportunities for the Obama campaign to attract more volunteers who would engage in the traditional tasks of political campaigns such as canvassing and manning phone banks. Obama's group on Facebook is one of the biggest with 2.5 million members. With numbers this large, he was able to efficiently and effectively send out information regarding the campaign.

Perhaps Obama's most impressive use of the Web was to raise record amounts of cash for his campaign. In one month – September - the Obama campaign took in $150 million by tapping his huge database of supporters. Obama declined public campaign financing, which would have placed severe limitations on the money he could raise overall. McCain, because he agreed to public financing, was restricted to spending just $84 million for the entire presidential campaign.

By the time the final accounting is complete, the cost of Obama's presidential bid is likely to exceed $700 million, including the primary. The previous fund-raising record was set by George W. Bush who raised $367 million in his successful bid for re-election in 2004. Unlike Bush, however, Obama turned down federal financing of his general election campaign, becoming the first major party candidate in history to do so.

The numbers are truly impressive but what must also be considered is that this huge sum was the result of millions of small donations. Nearly half of his total amount came from donors giving less than $200, most of which arrived via the Web.

Critics point out that Obama's refusal to accept public money probably means that the system of public financing of presidential campaigns, which has been in place since the 1970s as a means to prevent abuses along the lines of Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, is no longer viable.

These critics probably have a point about expensive campaigns jeopardizing the health of the political process. However, in Obama's defense, the success of his fund-raising efforts is the result of his small-donor base, which, in its own way, indicates an engaged electorate. Furthermore, federal financing of presidential campaigns was moribund anyway because Congress refused to revisit the limits to reflect changes in the cost-of-living since the law was passed. Eighty-four million dollars went a lot of further in 1980 than it does today.

It is likely that this year's over-the-top spending will force Congress to either revamp or get rid of the public campaign financing law.

The Obama campaign also used the Web effectively to bypass mainstream media in getting out its message of change. To his credit, Obama realized more than McCain, that 21st century voters, particulary those under 30, comprise a different political audience. McCain may be the last major party figure to rely on old media techniques and strategy to wage a modern presidential campaign. Today's voters are better informed, more skeptical and more likely to challenge the conventional wisdom as it is represented by traditional newspapers and broadcast media. This is an electorate brought up on the rumor mill of the Drudge Report and Huffington Post. In response, they have created their own blogs such as Politico.com, which engage in healthy fact-checking of the claims of the campaigns.

Obama used Facebook and YouTube to post official campaign video clips as well as video produced by its supporters, which might have lacked the professional luster of the official videos but made up for it in their palpable enthusiasm and passion for the candidate. The iconic 2008 campaign viral video is without a doubt Obama Girl on YouTube, created by amateurs without connection to the campaign.

Obama's successful campaign for the presidency is ground-breaking, not just in the way that it has been justly celebrated by the press - the overcoming of racial barriers - but also because it pushed the Web and new media to the forefront of the machinery of modern political campaigning.

Robert Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at St. Louis University. 

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