07 May 2008

Social Media and the Presidential Campaign: What's Left?

OK, back to political talk.

The media has (once again) anointed Senator Obama as the presumptive nominee and the talk is all about framing Senator Clinton's "exit strategy." Of course, in about a week we will see a story that leads with "Someone forgot to tell West Virginia that Senator Clinton lost." And we'll see it again a week later in Kentucky. And since those states are among the biggest of the states remaining in the primaries, their influence will be inflated, especially by the Clinton campaign. In the end, none of the talking heads will matter.

It's still Senator Obama's nomination to lose, but he's in a similar position to the one Senator McCain was in just before he clinched the nomination - remember Governor Huckabee kept getting larger-than-expected results in a few states around that time. (In fact, Senator McCain still isn't carrying 80 percent of his own primaries. The mainstream media might just notice this eventually when they talk about division among Democrats.)

So what role will social media play in the weeks ahead? The short answer is simple: money money money money money money money money money money. Oh, and money.

Liberals are turning their blogs into virtual ATM's not simply for the Obama campaign, but for "down-ticket" Senate and House races as well, and they are producing impressive results. For some inexplicable reason, I don't see opportunities to contribute to campaigns on many of the conservative blogs - RedState, with links to David All's Slatecard project (sort of a conservative answer to Act Blue) stands out as the major exception.

Somewhere, deep inside the Clinton campaign, people are kicking themselves for not building better relationships with bloggers months ago. Now the "big" blogs like Daily Kos and Americablog have essentially turned on them. The people who read political blogs are, obviously, very interested in partisan politics. Blogs give them an opportunity to participate - i.e. give money - quickly and easily. No more having to get dressed up and schlep to a fundraiser or find a stamp and mail in a check. Click a mouse a few times and it's done - especially if the blogger does all the back-end work for you.

The Clinton and McCain campaigns are still relying primarily on people to leave the website they're looking at and visit the campaign website to donate. The Obama campaign, with its support throughout the blogosphere, gives people the opportunity to donate from the website they're looking at that moment.

Of course, there's much more to it than that. The Clinton campaign is, essentially, a top-down organization in terms of communication. It takes a traditional approach to message development (run the highly-controlled focus group, glean some key words, and repeat them back - whatever they happen to be). The McCain campaign is a GOP operation, so it distributes the daily talking points to Fox News, talk radio, GOP politicians, and now a handful of bloggers who want to be part of the echo chamber.

The Obama campaign is much different, especially in terms of organizing. They built a series of social network infrastructures and let people do the organizing on their own, the way they want to. They put an unprecedented amount of power in the hands of their volunteers, and gave more access to more people. Think of a "straight talk express" bus on the Information Superhighway, and you don't need a press pass to get the talk.

This is riskier - after all, the stories about Senator Obama's "rural voters are bitter" remarks at a San Francisco fundraiser were actually sparked by an Obama supporter on a blog - but the strength of his organization is largely responsible for his victories in caucus states, and much if not most of that organization was organically grown outside the walls of campaign HQ.

The Obama campaign can now focus on just a handful of states and it can beef up its networks in all. And come the general election, more states will be in play because more people will be part of the process and the volunteers already have an easy process in place to do their work in each state. Senator McCain is shoring up his own base. Senator Obama is expanding the Democratic one.

The race will still be decided on ideas and on perceptions of the future (or on a major gaffe by a candidate), but if GOTV (that's "Get Out The Vote" if you're a newbie) and cash have anything to do with it, Senator Obama has a large advantage.

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