The nth Real Internet Campaign
The 2008 election cycle is at least the third to called "The First Real Internet Campaign." Whatever. It's clear that the net is making a meaningful impact this time around, and that some of the questions we asked last summer about the maturity of online campaigning are being answered in the affirmative.
The most obvious place to start is by following the money. Politicians have understood the net as an ATM since the brief ascendancy of Howard Dean. Now Barack Obama is leading the money race with enormous support from small donors, which means he can go back to those people again and again, while a higher percentage of Hillary Clinton's money comes from big givers who have already maxed out this cycle under federal election law. (Not all of Obama's small-dollar support comes via the web; it helps to repeat, over and over, "Not by the net alone shalt thou win elections.") On the Republican side, Ron Paul showed yet again how effectively an insurgent can leverage the net.
YouTube, which made its mark by undoing George "Macaca" Allen in the 2006 VA Senate race, continues to push politics further into pop culture. Again, Obama seems to have captured the most benefit from the trend, due in some part perhaps to his youthful demographic. The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, seemed oddly unprepared for the realities of new media when the candidate misstated the facts of her trip to a Bosnian airstrip, prompting Frank Rich to write in the New York Times, "The Clinton campaign's cluelessness about the Web has been apparent from the start."
But as our article made clear, a lot of important stuff happens below the waterline. It's one thing to have a ton of Facebook friends, but can they be translated into organizational muscle and, ultimately, votes? Can the net continue to improve the basic logistics of voter contact and motivation -- stuff the GOP has done very well while Democrats have been crowing about their new media prowess?
Early indications are that the net is indeed being used more and more effectively in the block-and-tackle aspects of campaigns. I hear from on-the-ground organizers that connections to the big state voter-file databases -- an area we highlighted last August as underdeveloped -- are more accessible than ever. Obama (sense a trend here in terms of the webbiest campaign?) seems to be driving turnout with an active net effort. And, to choose just one example, Zack Hawkins, head of the North Carolina Young Democrats, said in a recent interview that organizing events on the scope and scale his group has managed would be unthinkable without Facebook (more from him here).
November is a long way off, and much of what's happened during primary season remains to be fully examined, but the 2008 campaign seems to be living up to the hype about the role of the net.