Last Thursday, I revealed that, with the fall campaign rapidly approaching, my CampaignUSA 2012 blog would transition in a few days to a new focus on the increasing influence exerted by media coverage and TV and Web ads--what many, rightly or wrongly, now consider the "real campaign." As previously, I'll cast a critical eye at campaigns from the state level right up to race for the White House. So to kick it off, let's set the stage with a final look at 2008 and the campaign/media lessons learned then, at least in the presidential contest.
The nomination of an African-American for president by a major party, and the Republicans’ first selection of a female candidate for vice president, were not the only historic aspects of the 2008 election campaign in the United States. This was also the first national campaign profoundly shaped—even, at times, dominated—by the new media, from viral videos and blog rumors that went “mainstream” to startling online fundraising techniques.
James Poniewozik, the Time magazine columnist, observed at mid-year that the old media are rapidly losing their “authority,” and influence, with the mass market. “It’s too simple to say that the new media are killing off the old media,” he declared, while highlighting a pair of influential scoops for the Huffington Post by a hitherto unknown “citizen journalist” named Mayhill Fowler. “What’s happening instead is a kind of melding of roles. Old and new media are still symbiotic, but it’s getting hard to tell who’s the rhino and who’s the tickbird.” He concluded, with an oblique reference to the late Tim Russert: “Maybe we’ll remember this election as the one when we stopped talking about ‘the old media’ and ‘the new media’ and, simply, met the press.”
Now flash forward to 2012: Obviously this trend has only continued, if not accelerated, in all realms, including fundraising and attack videos. Twitter was not even a factor in 2008. Just consider how quickly, and fully, Mitt Romney's "shambles" in London this past week saturated the news cycle, thanks to blogs and tweets and, yes, mainstream news reports and videos online.
For some context, you might consider the following, which I used, in a different form, as the preface to my book and ebook, Why Obama Won—and Lessons for 2012  (Sinclair Books).
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The rules of the game have been changed forever—by technology. It was more than the “YouTube Election,” as some dubbed it, or “The Facebook Election” or “hyper-politics.” James Rainey, the longtime media reporter for the Los Angeles Times, declared that there is a “new-media revolution that is remaking presidential campaigns. Online videos can dominate the evening news. Or an unpublished novelist ‘with absolutely no journalism training’ can alter the national debate,” a reference to Mayhill Fowler.
In June 2008, the alleged Obama “terrorist fist bump” went from viral to The View in just three days. Fortunately, the candidate was able to laugh it off, which was certainly not the case after the Reverend Wright videos went viral—another example of the unpredictable power of web politics. More evidence: after wrapping up the nomination in June, the Obama campaign launched an extensive website devoted solely to shooting down viral rumors and innuendo.
“What’s different this year is that the entire political and media establishment has finally woken up to the fact that the internet is now a major player in the world of politics and our democracy,” said Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of the TechPresident blog and annual Personal Democracy Forum. “We are watching a conversion of our politics from the twentieth century to the twenty-first.”
How did sites with names like Politico and FiveThirtyEight and Eschaton and Crooks and Liars collectively come to rival the three television networks in influence, even if partly by influencing the networks themselves? It’s been more than thirty-five years since “the Boys on the Bus” were anointed and celebrated. Now the Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” site often made headlines with on-the-scene bulletins and audio/video snippets from some 3,000 contributors.
Defending one of Mayhill Fowler’s scoops—on Bill Clinton’s “sleazy” attack on Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair captured along a rope line in South Dakota—Jay Rosen said, “Professional reporters are going to have to decide whether they want to view citizen journalists as unfair competition, which is one option, or as extending the news net to places that pro reporters can’t, won’t or don’t go, which is another—and I think a better —way to look at it.”
Online influence in political campaigns predates the current race, of course. Who can forget the web-organized “meet-ups” that helped spark Howard Dean’s insurgent drive in 2004? Daily Kos was backing Dean and many Democrats in Senate and House races—while losing almost every key contest, it should be noted. The blog phenomenon had barely begun, YouTube was not yet born, social networking sites were in their infancy or still a glimmer in the eyes of entrepreneurs. The “Swift Boating” of John Kerry was mainly carried out in the traditional ways—TV spots, print ads and interviews on Fox News.
Two years later, the “tickbird” really started… ticking, with the 2006 elections, in which the Democrats took back Congress—thanks, quite significantly, to the activism and funding generated by liberal blogs and their allied groups. This reversed the poor new media/netroots record in the 2004 campaign and signaled that the “revolution” had really arrived.
YouTube had burst on the scene. The most revealing single incident: Senator George Allen’s “macaca” moment. This was when he uttered a distasteful slur at an obscure campaign rally, which happened to be caught on video and soon watched by millions on the web, and millions more when picked up (in the usual manner) by cable TV.
This was unthinkable—even impossible—until recent years. Allen lost narrowly to Jim Webb, the Democrat. Then the liberal web-backed candidates triumphed in several special elections in 2007.
That same year, Obama’s online fundraising prowess, I suggest, was a key to his eventual victory, for several reasons: It gave him a quick start in the spending race; the millions of small donors gave him credibility as a broad-based candidate and provided the mainstream media with a catchy story line; it showed party leaders and super-delegates—and the press—that he might be the most powerful nominee; and it allowed his followers to feel they were intimately linked to his fortunes (in both meanings of the word).
But let’s not forget that the wildly passionate, if not exactly successful, Ron Paul phenomenon was purely a product of the web. On the other hand, other candidates—such as Rudy Giuliani and Joe Biden—faltered badly partly because they had little or no life online. Hillary Clinton’s web operation was largely viewed as old-fashioned and “square,” and she did not get her online fundraising act together until too late in the game. Her most “hip” moment of the whole campaign came early when she filmed a video spoof of the final episode of The Sopranos, with her husband in a diner. It was viewed by millions but she never followed up on that type of success, even though she had hired a former blogosphere ace, Peter Daou.
Clinton was mocked by many for campaign videos that had a saccharine “Up with People” quality, while more cutting-edge acts put together hot Obama tunes.
At the same time, many of the candidates had to repeatedly answer charges or respond to embarrassing videos posted on the web. Giuliani had to put out almost weekly flash fires about his record and his mistress/wife; Mitt Romney had to defend his making his dog ride on the roof of his car and claiming that his sons were doing their part in the war on terror by campaigning for him; John McCain was captured singing the old Beach Boys tune with new lyrics: “Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran.” And John Edwards had to endure the constant replay of him fluffing up his hair before a TV appearance four years earlier.
I would argue that videos featuring Bill, not Hillary, Clinton led to the true turning point in the primary race, when on three separate occasions he was caught making what some took to be “racial” remarks and/or losing his temper with voters or reporters—all in informal settings captured by amateurs or small town reporters and then beamed to millions. Countless Democrats, and particularly African-Americans, who had always revered the Clintons, switched to Obama in the space of a week or two. Even if they still liked Hill they did not want another four or eight years of Bill. Obama won eleven primaries in a row and the race was all but over.
Early in the final Obama-McCain showdown, the number one campaign charge from the Democrats was that the Republican wanted to stay in Iraq “for 100 years.” What was the source for this? An amateur video of McCain making a remark to that effect at a small campaign gathering months earlier, spread widely on the web—in the usual fashion, first by liberal bloggers, then by the Obama campaign itself. Soon it turned up frequently on network and cable TV shows and even in Democratic commercials.
From the GOP side, Reverend Wright’s Greatest YouTube Hits perhaps peaked too early, quickly grew stale and were not utilized widely in the fall until the final days of the campaign. Some Republicans lamented that McCain was getting killed on the web—and he didn’t help his image any when he admitted that he was still an internet neophyte. In June, when Obama passed the magic barrier of 1 million Facebook friends—a measure that didn’t exist four years ago—it was noted that McCain only had 150,000.
And we haven’t even mentioned Obama Girl.
Greg Mitchell’s other books on great American campaigns include The Campaign of the Century (Upton Sinclair, 1934) and Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady (Nixon vs. Douglas, 1950).