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.