How Obama Won: The Rise of Web 2.0
When the nearly two-year race for the White House ended on November 4, 2008, the solid win for Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a vote for hope and change, no longer seemed a surprise. Certainly it was judged historic and profound but Obama's triumph had come to feel almost inevitable in the final weeks. John McCain's pathetic last ditch efforts -- painting Obama as a "socialist," adopting "Joe the Plumber" as his campaign pet, appearing on Saturday Night Live with Tina Fey as she continued to make his running mate a national laughing stock -- could not stem the tide.
Going back one year, however -- and finding Hillary Clinton labeled the clear frontrunner -- puts the Obama victory in perspective. Joe Scarborough wasn't the only pundit back then to pat Obama on the head for a nice effort and tell him to prepare to get ground up and "spit out" by the unstoppable double-Clinton machine. Instead, Obama, with the help of an unprecedented grassroots funding and organizing effort, battled that machine to a standstill, then knocked out McCain a few months later.
How did that happen? The Democratic insurgent made few poor moves, remained calm while avoiding, or wiping off, the mud thrown at him, and continually surprised the pundits, who overestimated both Clinton and McCain (and Sarah Palin) past the point that most voters abandoned them.
Then there was the Web.
The nomination of an African-American for president by a major party, and the Republicans' first selection of a female candidate for vice-president, were not the only historic aspects of the 2008 election campaign in the United States. This was also the first national campaign profoundly shaped -- even, at times, dominated -- by the new media, from viral videos and blog rumors that went "mainstream" to startling online fundraising techniques.
James Poniewozik, the Time magazine columnist, observed at mid-year that the old media are rapidly losing their "authority," and influence, with the mass market. "It's too simple to say that the new media are killing off the old media," he declared, while highlighting a pair of influential scoops for Huffington Post by a hitherto unknown "citizen journalist" named Mayhill Fowler. "What's happening instead is a kind of melding of roles. Old and new media are still symbiotic, but it's getting hard to tell who's the rhino and who's the tickbird." He concluded, with an oblique reference to the late Tim Russert: "Maybe we'll remember this election as the one when we stopped talking about 'the old media' and 'the new media' and, simply, met the press."
Simply put: The rules of the game have been changed forever -- by technology. It was more than the "YouTube Election," as some dubbed it, or "The Facebook Election," or "hyper-politics." James Rainey, the longtime media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, declared that there is a "new-media revolution that is remaking presidential campaigns. Online videos can dominate the evening news. Or an unpublished novelist ‘with absolutely no journalism training' can alter the national debate," a reference to Mayhill Fowler.
Case in point: In June, the alleged Obama "terrorist fist bump" went from viral to The View in just three days. Fortunately, the candidate was able to laugh it off, which was certainly not the case after the Rev. Wright videos went viral -- another example of the unpredictable power of Web politics. More evidence: After wrapping up the nomination in June 2008, the Obama campaign launched an extensive Web site devoted solely to shooting down viral rumors and innuendo.
"What's different this year is that the entire political and media establishment has finally woken up to the fact that the internet is now a major player in the world of politics and our democracy," said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the TechPresident blog and annual Personal Democracy Forum. "We are watching a conversion of our politics from the 20th century to the 21st."
How did sites with names like Politico and FiveThirtyEight and Eschaton and Crooks and Liars and AlterNet collectively come to rival the three television networks in influence, even if partly by influencing the networks themselves? It's been more than thirty-five years since "The Boys on the Bus" were anointed and celebrated. Now Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" site often made headlines with on-the-scene bulletins and audio/video snippets from some 3000 contributors. It was there that Mayhill Fowler's two major scoops in the campaign were posted.
Defending her second one -- on Bill Clinton's "sleazy" attack on Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair captured along a rope line in South Dakota -- Jay Rosen, who runs that section of the Huff Post site, said, "Professional reporters are going to have to decide whether they want to view citizen journalists as unfair competition, which is one option, or as extending the news net to places that pro reporters can't, won't or don't go, which is another -- and I think a better -- way to look at it."
I would argue that videos featuring Bill, not Hillary, Clinton led to the true turning point in the primary race, when on three separate occasions he was caught making what some took to be "racial" remarks and/or losing his temper with voters or reporters -- all in informal settings captured by amateurs or small town reporters and then beamed to millions. Countless Democrats, and particularly African-Americans, who had always revered the Clintons, switched to Obama in the space of a week or two. Even if they still liked Hill they did not want another four or eight years of Bill. Obama won eleven primaries in a row and the race was all but over.
Early in the final Obama-McCain showdown, the number one campaign charge from the Democrats was that the Republican wanted to stay in Iraq "for 100 years." What was the source for this? An amateur video of McCain making a remark to that effect at a small campaign gathering months earlier, spread widely on the Web -- in the usual fashion, first by liberal bloggers, then by the Obama campaign itself. Soon it turned up frequently on network and cable TV shows and even in Democratic commercials.
From the GOP side, Rev. Wright's Greatest YouTube Hits perhaps peaked too early, quickly grew stale and were not utilized widely in the fall until the final days of the campaign . Some Republicans lamented that McCain was getting killed on the Web -- and he didn't help his image any when he admitted that he was still an internet neophyte. In June, when Obama passed the magic barrier of one million Facebook friends -- a measure that didn't exist four years ago -- it was noted that McCain only had 150,000.
And we haven't even mentioned Obama Girl.
In the autumn, the turning point for the entire campaign might have come when McCain's gamble, picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, was undermined by the CBS interview with her by Katie Couric and the Saturday Night Live parodies starring Tina Fey. Yes, they were generated in the mainstream but they gained tens of millions of additional viewers online in the days that followed.
Today, old media still plays a strong role, of course, but even when it is at center stage, which is often, it now comes under withering review from the world of the Web -- and in turn, responds to those critiques, and the cycle goes on and on. Even mainstream figures such as Couric, Brian Williams, and Keith Olbermann write blogs, which are quite popular.
Yes, the networks and cable news outlets hosted almost all of the candidate debates, but this year they were joined by partners such as Facebook and YouTube. The YouTube debate provided some of the best, and goofiest, questions of the whole primary season (who can forget the query about global warming from a melting snowman). One of the lowlights of the primary season for the networks was the public flogging of ABC anchor Charles Gibson for his often inane questions during one debate. The uproar from the Web was so strong that Gibson had to respond -- on the air the next night.
And recall what happened after the Democratic debate in February. Everyone remembers the Saturday Night Live sketch a few days later -- but what sparked that? For days after the debate, the Web was alive with charges that the all-male panelists had piled on Hillary and given Obama a free pass. The SNL segment was credited with helping to spark Clinton's "comeback" in primary voting that spring.
As the final week of the campaign approached in October, Howard Kurtz ventured out on the campaign trail for a few days for The Washington Post and then asked: Have the Web and the digital age doomed the "boys on the bus"? He sketched Obama about to speak to 10,000 screaming fans at a state fairgrounds but observed that before he "took the podium, the text of his speech arrived by BlackBerry. The address was carried by CNN, Fox and MSNBC. While he was still delivering his applause lines, an Atlantic blogger posted excerpts. And despite the huge foot-stomping crowd that could barely be glimpsed from the media tent, most reporters remained hunched over their laptops.
"Does the campaign trail still matter much in an age of digital warfare? Or is it now a mere sideshow, meant to provide the media with pretty pictures of colorful crowds while the guts of the contest unfold elsewhere? And if so, are the boys (and girls) on the bus spinning their wheels?"
Then, on the morning of Election Day, the New York Times presented, as its banner headline on the front page, "The '08 Campaign: A Sea Change for Politics As We Know It." Adam Nagourney opened it with, "The 2008 race for the White House that comes to an end on Tuesday fundamentally upended the way presidential campaigns are fought in this country, a legacy that has almost been lost with all the attention being paid to the battle between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama.
"It has rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage -- and withstand -- political attacks, including many carried by blogs that did not exist four years ago."
So blogs, which rarely drew wide notice in 2004 and were derided by some as a silly, passing fancy, now earned a place in the second paragraph of the top Times story on Election Day 2008. "I think we'll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race," said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to President Bush's campaigns in 2000 and 2004, in that Times article. "The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down."
Terry Nelson, who was the political director of the Bush campaign in 2004, said that the evolution would continue in 2012 and beyond. "We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation of how campaigns are run," Nelson said. "And it's not over yet." As Sarah Palin might say: You betcha.
Copyright Sinclair Books, 2009.
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