Menus Subscribe Search

Can Obama Keep His Technology Edge in 2012?

• October 20, 2011 • 12:01 PM

The Obama campaign’s adept use of technology in the 2008 election created not a permanent edge but a permanent path for others to follow, suggest two professors.

Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s staff often kicked off his stump speeches with a few words from a warm-up act. A young man would walk out on stage. He’d say something like, “Boy, it’s good to see you all here! Candidate Obama is about two miles away and will be here shortly. Let’s tell him how much we’re looking forward to seeing him …” and the young man would then lead the crowd in the collective exercise of sending Candidate Obama a welcome text message from a hundred or a thousand phones simultaneously.

“I kept shaking my head, saying, ‘You all are falling for it, you’re falling for it,’” recalled Robert Denton, a professor of communication at Virginia Tech. “But it’s that desire — I sent a personal welcome to Obama and signed it myself, and then all of a sudden, right after the event, within moments, I get that text back: ‘Thank you for showing up. I need your support.’ And wow, it’s on my phone!”

This is when Denton says he got his first inkling of what the campaign was up to. And then he witnessed the same trick at a second event.

“By the third event, I was grinning from ear to ear,” Denton said. “I thought, ‘My goodness! How smart is that?’”

This was a tactic of the most technologically savvy campaign in history, a campaign that, Denton says, marked a watershed in the use of new media in politics for years to come. In Communicator-In-Chief: How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology To Win The White House, Denton and co-editor John Allen Hendricks tally the cumulative new-media onslaught of Obama ’08: His website organized more than 150,000 events, helped create 35,000 groups and registered 1.5 million accounts. It raised more than $600 million from 3 million people. His YouTube channel posted 1,820 videos, watched for a total of 14.5 million hours (the equivalent of which, on broadcast television, would have cost $47 million). Obama’s Facebook page had more than 3 million supporters. His staff included 90 people working on Internet campaigns.

When Obama sent a text message introducing Joe Biden as his running mate to supporters (some of whom may have wondered how the campaign got their phone numbers), it was deemed the “single largest mobile marketing campaign” ever. Obama was even the first presidential candidate to ever buy advertising on billboards — in video games.

[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]

“The difference between the McCain campaign and Obama campaign was just huge, absolutely huge,” Denton said. “The thing that made Obama very unique was the amount of resources he allocated toward new media and the span of it:  almost every instrument of Web 2.0 and the Internet, he utilized it. He had a strategy almost for every device.”

That was then.

The Obama 2012 campaign is now staffing up for a repeat performance, investing millions and posting techie want ads to build up what The New York Times calls its “brute technology force.” The ’08 campaign, however, was more than an e-campaigning milestone; it was an e-campaign blueprint. And that means that we may never again see the kind of yawning technological advantage again.

Obama, of course, wasn’t the first politician on the Internet. Denton and Hendricks trace the medium’s political evolution over the past two decades. In the early ’90s, use of the Web was largely limited to nonprofits and interest groups posting information, not the candidates themselves. In 1996, just a quarter of the 100,000 candidates running for office in the country had their own home pages. By 2000, the Web was being primarily used for fundraising and mobilization, with little impact on swing voters. Howard Dean gets credit in 2004 for first deploying social media. And then came the all-devices-all-the-time strategy of the Obama campaign.

“Not only was Obama kind of the first, he was on the leading edge and he had the right team,” Denton said. “It was not unlike we used to talk about how those who can afford the best consultants can win an election, or if you had the best attorney, you might get off.”

So, what will happen this coming year, as it’s clear that Obama’s potential competitors (and most politicians in Washington, for that matter) have caught on to Twitter, YouTube and text messaging? Was the chance to bludgeon an opponent with “brute technology force” a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Denton likens the 2008 race to two teams with different tools. Obama had the right weapon; McCain didn’t. Now, everyone has it. But it still matters, Denton said, how they use it.

“You can still continue to see differences,” Denton predicted. “It’s not so much in the technology, but do you have good people, do they understand the technology? Can they do a better job at it?”

Can they predict what application will be popular next in the perpetual chase to form relationships with voters on their latest favorite platforms?

Whatever happens, we probably won’t have a watershed two presidential election cycles in a row. But the last one — and the potential technological arms race to follow — will change campaigns for the indefinite future.

“It means that a lot of media professionals will continue to influence the candidates and the campaign and the process,” Denton said. “I don’t know if that’s totally a good thing.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.