Pundits, pols, and political scientists will spend months and years dissecting this presidential election. But one fact is unmistakably clear: We have seen the future of politics. And it’s digital.
Digital technologies played a bigger and more decisive role in the outcome of this election than ever before. For a confluence of reasons, they worked spectacularly well for Barack Obama.
Consider some of the particulars: The respective campaigns relied on sophisticated marketing data from commercial firms that tracked Internet viewing habits, political leanings, and issues of interest to likely voters. In addition to making it easy to donate money online, the candidates’ websites placed cookies in visitors’ computers, making it easy for the campaigns to keep track of potential voters and to target them at the online sites they were likely to frequent.
The campaigns collected the cell phone numbers of thousands of participants at political rallies and the national conventions. They set up dedicated social network sites for their candidates, and individuals set up scores of independent socnets and blogs of their own. The campaigns barraged their supporters with e-mails.
Barack Obama took things a step further by famously announcing his running mate via text message. And his campaign even embedded Obama ads in video games.
Okay, I think the running mate gambit was a gimmick. But it seems to me that Obama clearly had the edge in using digital technologies more effectively than his competition in both the primary and general elections.
Why? Obama ran a young person’s campaign. He appealed to the young demographic with his charisma and calls for change in a way the Republicans couldn’t touch. And he was wildly successful at reaching young people via the digital technologies that are their lifelines. They were able to interact not only with his campaign, but with their friends and online communities – and to extend that online involvement to grassroots participation on the street.
Obama has given us the best model of what digital politics will look like henceforth: using the Internet and personal electronic devices to find potential supporters; to keep track of and stay in touch with them; to make it easy for them to donate their money; and to “activate” them to work on the candidate’s behalf.
There are a lot of factors that determine the success of a political campaign, starting with the amount of money raised. There are the strategic decisions large and small, the quantity and quality of advertising (especially on TV), the effectiveness of local organizing, personal charisma, the tone of media coverage … oh, and even the candidates’ stances on the issues.
Maybe it’s a stretch to say that Obama won because he did the better job of mobilizing young voters via digital technologies. But I suspect it’s not a big stretch.