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The First Internet Campaign

 
 
 
 
 
 

Barack Obama was elected for many reasons, but it seems clear that his campaign organization played an important role in his victory, and in some places perhaps a decisive one.

That campaign organization was enabled to a great degree by its innovative use of technology, including social networking software, mobile phones, and other tools. Behind the net effort was a big IT development project, described (along with the organizing strategy) here.

And all of that was wrapped in an emergent media culture tied together by the internet.

More than a year ago, Joe Trippi -- the architect of Howard Dean's seminal net campaign -- predicted something like this in our magazine:

Trippi believes this kind of technology will be a real difference-maker in the race for the White House, and that his party has a big lead in using it. "There is this amazing competition between the Democratic campaigns; nobody is giving an inch," he says. "It's going to lead to an explosive, powerful progressive community online for the general election, with millions of people connected and hundreds of millions of dollars in small contributions. The major thrust is engaging voters, creating community around candidacy and getting people to be evangelists for the campaign. It could decide the election."
The Dean campaign remains in many ways the model of the way we campaign now -- in large part because technology was always seen as a means to an end. As Zephyr Teachout, its director of online organizing, told me in 2003, "[T]he campaign is not about the Internet. Online tools are a way to get people to act -- to meet in the physical world, to put up flyers and posters, write letters and checks, speak to other people face to face. And ultimately, to get out and vote. 'The Internet is moving from information technology to organizing technology,' she says."

And of course Obama brought his own background and skills as an organizer to the party.

Many campaign veterans disagreed with this strategy, saying the ground game was overrated. John McCain did not invest in it nearly as heavily as Obama. Gary Pearce, a long-time strategist in North Carolina, downplayed the importance of field organizing, as did his blogging partner, Carter Wrenn, who served as Jesse Helms' Karl Rove. No more. Pearce: "I've been skeptical about the vaunted Obama ground game. But now I believe it's real."

The internet did not win this election for Barack Obama, but it surely made a very large difference in his favor. This truly was the first internet election, and politics will never be the same.