How Web Sparked Obama Win

NEW YORK A Pew survey released late yesterday showed that more than half of all adults in the U.S. used the Web during the 2008 race for the White House for “political purposes,” from checking for news to sharing videos or Facebook postings. It also revealed that Obama’s backers used the Web far more extensively than McCain’s supporters, for everything from planning meetings to donating money.

These are not exactly shocking facts and they do not really do justice to the full impact of the Web in Obama’s victory last year.

When the nearly two-year presidential race ended on Nov. 4, 2008, the solid win for Obama no longer seemed a surprise. Going back one year, however — and finding Hillary Clinton labeled the clear front-runner — puts the Obama victory in perspective. Joe Scarborough wasn’t the only pundit back then to pat Obama on the head for a nice effort and tell him to prepare to get ground up and “spit out” by the unstoppable double-Clinton machine. Instead, Obama, with the help of an unprecedented grassroots funding and organizing effort, battled that machine to a standstill, then knocked out McCain a few months later.

How did that happen? The Democratic insurgent made few poor moves, remained calm while avoiding, or wiping off, the mud thrown at him, and continually surprised the pundits, who overestimated both Clinton and McCain (and Sarah Palin) past the point that most voters abandoned them.

Then there was the Web.

A major party’s nomination of an African-American for president, 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. You might call it Campaign 2.008.

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 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.”

Simply put: 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 Fowler.

Case in point: In June, 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 Rev. Wright videos went viral — another example of the unpredictable power of Web politics. More evidence: After wrapping up the nomination in June 2008, the Obama campaign launched an extensive Web site 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 20th century to the 21st.”

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 35 years since the “boys on the bus” were anointed and celebrated. Now Huffington Post’s Off the Bus site often made headlines with on-the-scene bulletins and audio/video snippets from some 3000 contributors. It was there that Fowler’s two major scoops in the campaign were posted.

Defending her second one — on Bill Clinton’s “sleazy” attack on Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair captured along a rope line in South Dakota — Jay Rosen, who runs that section of the Huff Post site, 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.”

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 11 primaries in a row and the race was all but over.

Early in the final Obama-McCain showdown, a leading 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.

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 had only 150,000.

Don’t forget: Last autumn, the turning point for the entire campaign might have come when McCain’s gamble, picking Palin as his running mate, was undermined by the CBS interview with her by Katie Couric and the Saturday Night Live parodies starring Tina Fey. Yes, they were generated in the mainstream, but they gained tens of millions of additional viewers online in the days that followed.

Another key factor: After the TV pundits scored each of the four big debates about even, instant polling and Web commentary, nearly all giving the Democrat the win, carried the day.

Today, old media still plays a strong role, of course, but even when it is at center stage, which is often, it now comes under withering review from the world of the Web — and in turn, responds to those critiques, and the cycle goes on and on. Even mainstream figures such as Couric, Brian Williams and Keith Olbermann write blogs, which are quite popular.