Obama’s facebooking of political campaigning

I’ve spent spare moments over the last few days ploughing through Newsweek’s excellent ‘insider’ coverage of the presidential campaigns.

Consisting of a bunch of breezy essays, it’s methadone for a US political junkie in the UK.

It’s worth ploughing through (best through their print versions and Instapaper) for the personality profiles; the Clinton and McCain campaigns sound like profane episodes of West Wing and the fawning accounts of the Obama camp (softened the story for the winner, for ongoing access, or betraying the control over access from Team Obama?).

The majority of the articles focus on anecdotes and insight into the personalities of the candidates, their inner circles and decision making processes.

Fascinating stuff. As an aside, I thought there was an interesting insight into how Obama tried bi-partisanship, entering into agreements with McCain and Kennedy (on campaign reform and immigration with the latter) and welching on agreements (bottom of page, and top of p4), which gives a view of the rookie senator’s noble sentiments, but deferring to partisan Dem leadership, something McCain didn’t effectively attack in the campaign.

McCain comes off as the noble warrior, whose campaign throttled his true nature (although that would have led to an irascible, easily distracted campaign) and the Clinton accounts are particularly harsh; showing stunning discord amongst her inner circle.

Although of passing reference in the actual articles, the element I really picked up on, were the few mentions of how the Obama campaign used the web to galvanise traditional grass roots activity, as it reminded me of how the campaign built on the foundations of the Dean campaign (Newsweek refers to the Dean campaign’s use of the web as a 1.0 effort).

Where Dean built a campaign with a new community-based movement that largely existed on the internet, the Obama campaign ‘mainstreamed’ the campaign via the internet, using their website to reinforce the traditional activities of phone calls, fund raising for TV ads, and neighbour to neighbour interactions. In other words, classic, old-school street-level campaigning.

The Obama iphone app is a good example of this approach:

“He showed off the Obama ’08 iPhone application…Closer inspection revealed a sophisticated data-mining operation. Tap the top button, “call friends,” and the software would take a peek at your phonebook and rearrange it in the order that the campaign was targeting states…With another tap, the Obama supporter could report back essential data for a voter canvass (“left message,” “not interested,” “already voted,” etc.). It all went into a giant database for Election Day.”

And their ‘VP news by SMS’ was a neat method of capturing cellphone numbers:

“…It wasn’t just a trick to do something flashy with technology and attract media attention. The point was to collect voters’ cell-phone numbers for later contact during voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Thanks to the promotion, the campaign’s list of cell-phone numbers increased several-fold to more than 1 million…”

Their website used cutting edge web app and VoIP technologies to make a better Phone Bank model, and even doing A/B comparisons to work out which webpage imagery generated maximum contributions.

This incredibly adept ‘maturing’ of the blog and online community sites are, I think, analogous to the mainstream commercialisation of blogs and ‘social media’…nicely illustrated, I think, by the fact that Chris Hughes, who led Obama’s ‘social media’ online presence was a Facebook Alumni.

I think the biggest disappointment I feel when thinking about this mainstreaming of ‘new’ media, was that, with Dean campaign, it felt like they had galvanised a new type of social interaction; bloggers suddenly were disintermediating established media and social networks were offering a genuine platform for new political movement.
And to an extent this has come to pass; its fair to say that political campaigning, and in particular, fundraising, have changed forever (if not the subsequent spending of those funds). This is a shift, that if not removing the influence of larger donor organisations, at least adds more balance in the influence of candidates.

The great promise of the Obama campaign was that, as with Dean in 2004, individual donations powered the campaign; over 50% of Obama campaign contributions came from individuals. It was a people’s movement, and it unseated the Clintons and the RNC; the biggest machines in modern US politics.

And yet the majority of that money was spent on TV ads.

The Obama camp were making it clear that everything they did was paving the road that led to established campaigning techniques:

“(Chris Hughes, head of the Obama Campaign’s New Media team) goal was to make old techniques—like call centers and getting polling information to voters—more efficient. “When computer applications really take off, they take something people have always done and just make it easier for them to do it,” he said. “And maybe bigger.”

And while the Obama campaign did far, far more than any previous campaign to release more substantial information and insight into policy decisions, they still generated the 30 second spots, tiptoed on broad issues for fear of being ‘caught out’ and generally played the mainstream media game.

I’d like to see more opportunities for personal interactions; the ‘Your Vision‘ section on the otherwise wonderful change.gov site feels more like one of a ‘your feedback really matters to us’ restaurant comment cards, than the open community it could have been.

Its hard to argue with their general approach of course; the results speak volumes. I can’t really blame the Obama campaign for spending its money, time and energy on media where the most ‘eyeballs’ are (I realise my personal media habits are irrelevant, I’d hardly be the target of their spend; and I’m not even a US citizen!).

So, its the news system that needs the most attention; news media is the dog being wagged by the tail of the campaigns.
TV ads, news cycle attention spans (now with integrated 24/7 blogging!) and newspaper print runs remain the engine of information flow for the majority of the populace; its natural that the campaigns will take broad sweeps, concentrated into sound-bites to feed this machine.

Dave Winer, a pioneer in this area (he was involved in Dean’s groundbreaking campaign, and of course, pioneered blogging) has been thinking of how ‘news is done’ for as long as I can remember (and I’ve been following him for 8 yrs).

Take this opener from one of his latest posts:

“What didn’t change in the 2008 election is the way news flowed. This is a big disappointment to me and something that causes great concern. I see the newspapers dying, and the broadcast media failing to do news, and I want to evolve to the next thing, but it doesn’t seem that’s the way it’ll go. Instead we’re likely to see a sudden collapse, and a void, much like the financial collapse in September. This would be tragic, unnecessary, a very bad for us…”