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Obama, the Internet and the Decline of Big Money and Big Media

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, February 6 2008

I just got back home from a quick business trip to Israel, and literally arrived at JFK at 6am this morning to learn all of the results from the Uber-Tuesday primaries. So forgive me if this post seems like it was written at 35,000 feet. But I think if we take a step back from the state-by-state results and look at the broader picture, I think a bold statement is in order.

If it were not for the internet, and all the campaign- and voter-generated activism that it has enabled, Hillary Clinton would already be the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee, and Barack Obama or another reform-minded candidate would be trailing badly. (On the Republican side, it's harder to make such a clear-cut statement, mainly because the field has been so open on that side. But again, I think the internet and all the campaign- and voter-generated activism it has enabled has helped keep the Republican field from solidifying, and certainly it has helped two of the four remaining candidates, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, extend their reach. For the purposes of this argument, though, I am going to focus on the Ds, a side that I know better anyway, and maybe one of our Republican contributors will wrestle with this on their side.)

From the 1980s forward, the presidential nominating process--what political scientists call "the winnowing process"--has been dominated by two things: the money chase and the big media's power to frame the primary narrative around the race. On the Democratic side, we've seen the same pattern play out every time there has been an open field (i.e., no sitting president running for re-election). One candidate is the favorite of the party's establishment and its major sources of funding, and one tries to create a reform coalition to dislodge the establishment favorite. That, in broad strokes, is the story of Mondale vs Hart in 1984, Dukakis vs Jackson in 1988, Clinton vs Brown in 1992, and Gore vs Bradley in 2000.

In 2004, something started to shift, and we saw a semi-outsider candidate powered mainly by small donations, Howard Dean, nearly steal the prize, but then the voters--and the establishment and the money--quickly solidified around John Kerry. The frontloading of the primaries--which has been engineered by a succession of party insiders who have wanted to insure a quick consolidation around a frontrunner (ideally from the establishment) has always given the edge to that better-financed establishment candidate. And certainly once Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, that was the end of any reform challenge to the frontrunner.

To be clear, I don't think the Democratic pattern can be distilled simply down to Big Money + Party Establishment vs Smaller Money + Outsider Reformer. As Ron Brownstein pointed out in a great column last year, there's a demographic element to this pattern too. In each case cited above, the victorious "insider" candidate has also managed to appeal to the more working-class Democratic base while the "reformer" has tapped more well-educated liberal types. Beer-drinkers vs wine-drinkers. Labor vs eggheads. Ethnic Catholics vs Jews and blacks. Brownstein warned that Obama, with his two best-selling introspective books and Harvard pedigree, might simply be repeating the same Hart-Jackson-Brown-Bradley role, while Clinton, with her base among working women, union members and urban minorities, was more likely to maintain the upper hand. And that may still be the story of 2008.

Now, Clinton vs Obama does have echoes of Gore vs Bradley or Mondale vs Hart. In each case, you have a former VP (or former First Lady, which Hillary is playing as if she was VP) against a reformist Senator. In each case, the reformist campaigned for change and new ideas over experience. But with Obama, two things are different.

One, and it's almost ridiculous to have to state it, is his obvious charisma. Compared to Obama, Bill Bradley and Gary Hart had all the charisma of a Brookings Institution policy paper (though perhaps Donna Rice felt differently about Hart). It often feels like the Obama campaign is selling us a rock star (tell me if that isn't the case with his main national TV commercial, when it zooms in on him on some giant stage surrounded by thousands of adoring, screaming fans). But time and again Obama delivers an arena-level performance, and his fans want to share the magic they are experiencing with others. And while I haven't had the time yet to dig into the cross-tabs, my gut tells me that Obama is drawing more support, in absolute terms, from younger voters than either Bradley or Hart ever managed to do--so even if his coalition is similar in make-up to theirs, it's bigger.

But the other big change, to finally circle around to my statement at the beginning of this post, is that we are now seeing the internet's role in politics in full flower. As Patrick Ruffini pointed out here recently, no candidate in American history has ever raised $32 million in a single month--until Obama came along and hit that mark this January. $28 million of that, the campaign says, was raised online. Clinton, who has had a more traditional fundraising operation, raised something like $13.5 million last month. There's also a significant difference in how the two campaigns are doing in attracting and mobilizing volunteers. We don't have the same kind of hard metrics, but from all kinds of soundings we know that Obama has been deploying huge numbers of paid and unpaid field organizers, and that voter-generated events on his behalf vastly outnumber similar events organized by Clinton supporters. (See my January 15 post on how he was dominating online organizing of offline events.)

And lastly there is a real difference in how each candidate and their base is situated in the online ecology. In addition to the backing of e-groups like MoveOn.org, Obama is rolling up personal endorsements from all kinds of tech/geek influentials: danah boyd, Larry Lessig, David Weinberger, Dave Winer, Ross Mayfield of Socialtext, Michael Arrington--there are plenty of others and I've just lost track. (The only influential tech blogger backing Hillary that I know of is Jeff Jarvis.) And perhaps most importantly, Obama's supporters are net natives. They know how to use the medium to spread messages. Just compare the DipDive "Yes We Can" video to the Clinton campaign's latest attempt at viral video, it's dippy "Guitar Hero" parody. One campaign benefits from voter-generated organic online support (that it has helped foster, as Ari Melber keeps pointing out), and one hires professionals to make online videos that, at least in this case, reek of inauthenticity. One campaign embraces the open internet in policy terms, and one cleaves to a Hollywood-inspired attitude towards intellectual property that kept it from even calling for free use of campaign debate video. The bottom line is, in generational terms Clinton's core supporters--women in their 40s through their 60s--are far less likely to be digital natives than Obama's youthful base.

Imagine if Bill Bradley or Gary Hart had the full-blown internet at their disposal in 2000 or 1984. Yes, I know Bradley raised a ton of money online (indeed, he achieved fundraising parity with Gore in 1999), but part of my point here is that back in 2000 the small-donor revolution was just starting--and today the internet effect is not just about small donors (26% of Obama's money is from people giving less than $200, compared to just 12% of Clinton's), though of course that is the easiest metric to point to, and still the most consequential.

The internet effect is also on grass-roots mobilization, by the campaigns as they ask their supporters to take actions (click here to virtual phone bank, or to download a precinct walk list, or to host your own house party) AND by supporters acting on their own to make and share their own powerful messages of support. Back in 2004, Dean webmaster Nicco Mele talked to me about feeling a new kind of progressive muscle flex in support of that campaign (See "The Deaning of America.") Now we're seeing that muscle on steroids. It's partly a product of a candidate with charisma and a real message that resonates--things for which there is no technological fix. But under the right circumstances, and I think we're seeing them now, the internet is a force multiplier for such a campaign.

The old winnowing process, which was mainly about wooing big donors and winning news cycles, is no more. Obama seems to be carving a new path to the nomination, one that has gotten him to parity, and maybe even given him the edge going forward. If he wins the Democratic nomination, there will be all kinds of reasons why. But if that happens, let's hope everyone gives the internet and all the campaign-driven and activist-driven organizing it has powered on his behalf a big share of the credit.

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