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Double-edged sword in Obama’s use of technology

By John Lee - posted Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Is Barack Obama looking to broaden the appeal of the Democratic Party or is he successfully destroying and rebuilding it in his own image? This was the question many were sensibly asking after his electoral victory. After all, post-election statistics tell us that it wasn’t just the ability to get disillusioned Republicans on board that won Obama the election. Obama’s campaign brought in a whole new generation of voters and it predominantly used technology to do it.

Obama’s use of technology to raise money and mobilise support during his campaign was unprecedented. It was a tactical masterstroke that only a relatively young candidate who until recently existed outside the Party’s machinery could appreciate. Technology allowed Obama to substantially bypass the pre-Internet traditional machinery of the Party to defeat both Hillary Clinton in the primaries and John McCain in the main game.

But it is this reliance on technology which leaves Obama vulnerable when the next election comes around. Obama’s tactics created excitement for millions of new supporters who jumped aboard the new style of campaigning. But it also caught his opposition by surprise. Using the same tactic to surprise foes is, by definition, a once only advantage. Barack Obama is smart enough to know that his technological revolution in campaigning will be less effective next time is and he isn’t about to discard the crusty, pre-existing Democratic political machine just yet.

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Even at first glance, the figures are astounding. Research shows that three million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online, giving the campaign more than $500 million from this avenue alone. Of these 6.5 million, six million were in increments of $100 or less: death to the opponent by six million small cuts.

The campaign’s use of email was as remarkable. John Kerry’s 2004 campaign had three million email addresses. Howard Dean had about 600,000. Barrack Obama’s campaign had more than13 million email addresses. And it wasn’t shy about using them. Over the duration of the campaign, Obama’s people sent in excess of one billion emails to these addresses.

What about use of the Internet? Two million profiles were created on Obama’s social network, www.myBarackObama.com, in addition to the five million supporters in social networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook. Nor did the campaign ignore that other form of communication favoured by Generation Ys, namely text messaging. More than one million people signed up to receive text-messages from the Obama campaign.

Obama understood that it wasn’t just about the raw numbers of emails sent or messages received. It was about building a vast and complicated, spontaneous and expanding, and highly motivated social network among the millions of anonymous supporters. Marketers have long realised the potential that technology brings to the creation of these networks and have exploited it to build brands and sell products. Obama understood the full import of this in order to raise money and win votes. Hillary Clinton and John McCain did not.

Virtual social networks, especially one pushing a cause, are difficult to create. Obama could do it because he represented something different and refreshing as a candidate. He also had the leadership skills and presence, is a wonderful orator, and could convincingly articulate his unique credentials. He could therefore use the power of technology to build his network of supporters who wanted to be part of American history.

Yet, virtual social networks even once successfully created are extremely difficult to sustain. These virtual networks move quickly. Participants no matter how enthusiastic have short attention spans and lose interest quickly. The medium encourages dynamism which means a relentless search for what is fresh, cool, new, and novel. Old topics are ruthlessly discarded and new ones enthusiastically embraced. The nature of the interest is transitory.

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This is the danger for Obama in 2012. By then, the mistakes and flaws of his presidency will be known. There will be no President Bush against whom he can favourably compare himself. He will no longer be making history for that will already have been achieved. Getting behind Obama in 2012 might still be a matter of conviction and considered policy. But it will no longer be fresh, cool, new, and novel.

Enthusiasm to sign up to receive email and text from the 2012 Obama campaign will most likely wane. There will probably be less than the three million donors there were in 2008, and of those still donating, they will be less likely to give more than once. Obama’s opponent will surely catch on to the importance of technology and will look to replicate and counter the 2012 Obama campaign in any way it can.

Obama knows that he must find new ways to win in 2012. He will need the Democratic machine behind him. He cannot afford to destroy and rebuild the Democratic Party and machinery because he needs it in its existing form. This goes some way toward why he needs to offer an olive branch to the Clintons.

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About the Author

Dr John Lee is a foreign policy visiting fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and also Managing Director of research & conferences company L21. Dr Lee has a Masters and Doctorate from University of Oxford. His most recent book was Will China Fail?, released in late 2007.

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