The Best Election

I was fascinated this weekend by David Broder’s declaration in his Washington Post column that the 2008 presidential election was the “best campaign” he’s ever covered.  This coming from the “dean of the press corps” and a man who has covered presidential politics for more than four decades speaks to the enthusiasm and interest generated by the candidacies of John McCain and Barack Obama.  It speaks to the promises, tools and bargains the campaigns have offered to the electorate, and how those have sparked an energy that many predict will result in unprecedented turnout on Tuesday. 

Broder cited what is essentially the Obama campaign’s superior use of the promise, tool and bargain as the “precise moment” he realized this would be the best presidential campaign he’d ever covered.  He knew it when he watched more than 18,000 people come to watch Obama in Iowa last January, and then saw the Obama campaign follow up with the legwork of volunteers, phone calls and precincts.  On the Republican side, Broder saw it when the voters rejected the mainstream media, pundits and party leaders alike to elect the older, established John McCain over “younger, more attractive” alternatives.

What struck me in Broder’s column was the back-to-the-basics nature of both the campaigns and his reporting.  As in his old days on the bus, Broder got his sense of the 2008 election not through blogs or YouTube but with on-the-ground reporting.  And his column makes no mention of text messages, emails or websites.  It’s about town halls, phone calls, canvassing and rallies, the campaigns meeting the voters 1:1.  When we think we’ve come so far, how much has really changed? 

And, if this is the “best campaign ever,” what can we expect next


On YouTube, McCain, Where Art Thou?

The 24/7 nature of news continues…minutes after I wrote my thoughts on the ways YouTube has impacted the 2008 presidential election, I saw that TechPresident had covered the subject with some real numbers.

They asked the question, “How much is YouTube worth to a Presidential campaign”?  The numbers, and the stark difference between Obama and McCain, are startling.   

The total in absolute time (views * video length):
Obama 14,548,809.05 hours; McCain 488,093.01 hours

14+ million hours of free video for Obama.  14 million!  They then put that number to Joe Trippi who calculated that would cost about $46 million for Obama in paid advertising.  For McCain, the cost would be about $1.5 million.  Trippi also makes the point that those 14 million hours are hours spent by people who chose to be there, not the same as paid ads that often seemed shoved down voters’ throats.

What is amazing to me is that the guy who has no money, McCain, is the candidate who did not take advantage of YouTube, aka free media.  The campaign knew they would be reined in by public financing and up against the financial juggernaut that is Obama, yet they did not take advantage of online videos as a new, cheap and innovative way to reach voters.  Of course, a large number of the Obama videos are voter-generated, in addition to those released by the campaign.  This demonstrates once again what I’ll call the “Shirky rule” of the 2008 election – McCain had no promise, no bargain and no tools.  And, perhaps most consequently, no YouTube!

“Race Speech” – Technology for Good

“2008 is a ‘first campaign’…2008 will be the first one in which technology is both the medium and the message.”

It did not take too many steps into the 2008 presidential election to see that statement proven undoubtedly true.  From blogs and fundraising to cellphones, MySpace and Twitter, technology has transformed the political process.  Of the new tools, YouTube has had perhaps the most surprising influence on politics.  Everyone remembers Paris, the snowman, the announcement, the girl and the hair, making 2008 a YouTube election, without doubt.

My favorite video of the 2008 presidential cycle is the address Barack Obama delivered on race in America, aka “Obama’s race speech” in YouTube lingo.  This video is not funny, not catchy and contains no “gotcha” moment, and that’s why it’s my favorite.  It is real and it demonstrates the positive impact technology can have on the political process.

Just one week after Obama delivered his 37-minute speech on race, close to 4 million people had watched it on the campaign’s official YouTube channel, and another 520,000 people watched excerpts of the speech uploaded on YouTube.  TechPresident noted the total YouTube viewers for the speech that week beat all the cable TV channels combined.   To date, the speech has been viewed more than six million times, making it one of, if not the, most popular political videos ever.

In these uncertain times voters want accurate information and a full characterization of candidates.  Now, through YouTube, they can get it.  Arianna Huffington theorized on Huffington Post recently that the Internet has brought an end to the “Rovian” politics of the past:

The Internet has enabled the public to get to know candidates in a much fuller and more intimate way than in the old days (i.e. four years ago), when voters got to know them largely through 30-second campaign ads and quick sound bites chosen by TV news producers.

YouTube hits like “Obama Girl” and “gotcha” moments like George Allen’s “macaca” really only gain storm if the mainstream media catches on and covers them.  YouTube videos like “Obama’s race speech” are powers in their own right.  They give candidates the power to bypass the media to portray a fuller picture of themselves to voters, and they allow voters to seek information and draw their own conclusions so when they step in the ballot box they are empowered to make informed, independent decisions. 


A win-win situation, indeed. 






I hit delete on my draft post as Sunday morning came and Obama released his latest fundraising numbers.  $150 million raised in September, 3.1 million campaign donors, average donation of $86.  Political fundraising is changed forever.


Will the presidential candidates of 2012 rely on small contributions alone?  I don’t think so.  Obama’s quick trip from the last debate to a high-dollar fundraiser and his September filings show that he still needs major donors to fuel his campaign.  In September alone, more than 600 people wrote checks of $25,000 or more to his campaign fund.  


Major donors will remain a focus of presidential campaigns through at least 2012 because candidates need big money from big names to operate, establish credibility and build a base of support.  Obama could not have built the grassroots campaign he did without the money and prestige associated with names like Roos, Pritzker, Crown, Spielberg and Geffen.


What was proven true in 2008 is that those names are no longer enough:


“What’s amazing,” says Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, “is that Hillary built the best campaign that has ever been done in Democratic politics on the old model—she raised more money than anyone before her, she locked down all the party stalwarts, she assembled an all-star team of consultants, and she really mastered this top-down, command-and-control type of outfit. And yet, she’s getting beaten by this political start-up that is essentially a totally different model of the new politics.”

That simple fact will change 2012 and every other future political campaign:


If a candidate can’t milk the Internet like a cash cow, said University of Wisconsin political scientist Byron Shafer, an authority on the presidential nominating process, “then we know you’ll be limited to what the bundlers can drag out for you. You’re not going to start a campaign and say, ‘This wild Obama thing, I’m not going to bother.’ You’re going to hire a guy and say, ‘Make this work for me.’ ”


What’s big out of Obama’s September filing is not the 600 major donors to his campaign.  Who cares?   632,000, the number of new donors who came to his campaign, is the number everyone will care about, and that, in itself, tells you the future.


In 2012, the “bundlers” will be people like Christen Braun who made her first political donation ever in 2008 and, in 2012, will be a top fundraiser through her MySpace page. No longer “Rangers” and “HillRaisers,” it will be the countless faces on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter bringing in the big money.  The biggest names in politics will be Chris Hughes, Joe Raspars, Mark Gorenberg, the head of Google AdWords, and, its safe to say, a fresh-faced Ivy League genius working from his dorm room.


I argue the candidates of 2012 will still rely on the big names and the big money to fuel their campaigns.  But, their formula will follow what will surely become the “Obama rule”:  90% small contributions and 10% “soft money.”


2008, to me, has shown that the small contribution juggernaut is largely dependent on the candidate and the circumstances.  The Democratic primary showed firsthand how online contributions follow the emotional highs and lows of a campaign.  I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the ways of direct mail, telemarketing and $250,000+ donors as the center of any fundraising campaign.  But I do think 2012 will be a bellwether election to determine whether the Obama magic is replicable, or was a one-time sight to behold.


One thing I know for sure?  Julianna Smoot will have no trouble finding a job.


Voter-Generated Content

I imagine when politicians first got wind of this “new thing” called the web, they thought it would be another means for them to stay “masters of their own message.”  This tool would enable them to bypass the media to go directly to voters.  Well, surprise, here come the voters!  Empowered by a PC and a broadband connection, Obama girl gets more hits than an Obama speech and YouTube viewers, not the Gang of 500, set the political discourse in politics 2008.

With voter-generated content, the voters are talking back.  My money is on the candidate who hears the voters and invites them in the campaign.  The excitement and energy generated by Barack Obama’s candidacy is evident in the sheer volume of voter-generated content his campaign has inspired.  Type “Barack Obama” into YouTube and you’ll get more than 250,000 results.  Try “Barack Obama Song” to narrow it down?  You’ll get more than 17,000 videos to peruse.  How about Obama merchandise on Google?  285,000 results.  Obama uniquely launched Runway to Change  and Artists for Obama where everyday artists and well-known designers can create and sell campaign merchandise.  The campaign absorbed the movement into their own, without losing the power and feel of its grassroots origins. 



What is evident throughout the pro-Obama content is the hope and inspiration behind his campaign.  Everything, from “Barack Obama is my Homeboy” to “One Million Strong,” is hope, change, a movement, power, positive, inspiration.  Clay Shirky would be proud.  The promise and the bargain are there.  With voter-generated content through a PC and broadband, the voters have the tool.

On the other side of the aisle, you can see the lack of a promise or a bargain by the McCain campaign.  The content here is all over the place, anti-Obama, anti-Democrats, pro-God, anti-government and maybe a little pro-McCain.  The message from voters is what they are against, not what they are for.  And it’s evident they are against Obama more than they are for McCain.  Take a look here – keep scrolling, scrolling, a little more, and you might find one pro-McCain piece of merchandise.

The majority of pro-Palin content either played on her sexuality:

 or her conservative views: 

For McCain, the material was hard to find and the message was “I’m for McCain because I don’t want the other side” as opposed to “I’m for McCain’s message.”  Or “McCain inspires me.”  (I guess it’s hard to generate creative ideas around earmark reform?) 

Country music came through for the Republicans once again though, with country star John Rich creating the “Raisin’ McCain” song and video to rally support for McCain.  The campaign embraced it too, featuring the video at the Republican National Convention.

 The most interesting feedback was how the voter-generated content differed from my experience with the liberal (Huffington Post) v. conservative (Hot Air) blogs.  In that case, the liberals were spreading the anti-McCain, anti-Republican negative message, while the conservatives were more positive in rallying around their candidate McCain.  With this, the opposite was true but both sides had the same mission:  leveraging the internet to support their views.


On the Left and On the Right

How would you like your news today?  To the right?  To the left?  A little mainstream media on the side to help wash it down?


That seems to be the menu of options before voters each time they reach for their serving of political news.   Voters today get the news they want, when they want it.  The past two weeks spent exploring the political blogosphere in the midst of a presidential election show just how dizzying the process can be.  I often felt I was in the middle of a ring fight. 



On the left….Huffington Post, a liberal heavyweight founded by Arianna Huffington.



On the right….Hot Air, a one-stop shop for conservatives founded by columnist Michelle Malkin.

Two fighters.  Same facts, different assumptions.


Take the days prior to the vice-presidential debate, for example.  If you were in the corner on the left you would have known about the Gwen Ifill book controversy, but would take issue with John McCain’s change in position, not the debate over whether Ifill is a fair moderator.   You would have known that Florida Republicans met to discuss their concerns over McCain’s campaign, that McCain declared himself to be “not a rich man,” and that pundits are saying the polls do not look good for McCain.


Coming out of the corner on the right, you would have known that Ifill was rightly under fire for not telling the debate commission about her book.   You also would have been pleased to see that Maureen Dowd was kicked off John McCain’s plane, that a Vatican official called Democrats the “party of death,” and that the Obama campaign is threatening free speech.


And the post-debate analysis?







Palin definitely won.

McCain camp: She did it


They sound happy, in a pro forma sort of way.

“Tonight, Governor Palin proved beyond any doubt that she is ready to lead as Vice President of the United States. She won this debate, putting Joe Biden on defense on energy, foreign policy, taxes and the definition of change. Governor Palin laid bare Barack Obama’s record of voting to raise taxes, opposing the surge in Iraq, and proposing to meet unconditionally with the leaders of state sponsors of terror. The differences between the Obama-Biden ticket and the McCain-Palin ticket could not have been clearer. The American people saw stark contrasts in style and worldview. They saw Joe Biden, a Washington insider and a 36-year Senator, and Governor Palin, a Washington outsider and a maverick reformer. Governor Palin was direct, forceful and a breath of fresh air.” –Jill Hazelbaker, McCain-Palin 2008 Communications Director

Current Drudge poll numbers: Palin 74%, Biden 24%. Vote it out!

Or, Biden won:

Who Won The VP Debate? Biden Scores Big

October 2, 2008 10:55 PM

Sam Stein| HuffPost Reporting From DC


The post-debate commentary on each side is, I think, the perfect example of the same facts, different assumptions world we live in.  Both Hot Air and Huffington Post got their headlines from the CNN, CBS and FOX focus groups and viewer polls after the debate.  Hot Air questioned the validity of the CNN and CBS polls and highlighted the FOX/Frank Luntz focus group that called the debate a clear victory for Palin:

o      I know this sounds reflexive, but I have my doubts about the CNN and CBS polls. I can’t help it, if they said day was light and night was dark, I would still question their validity.The mask has come off some of these MSM institutions so completely this year, they are so obviously biased, that I find myself having a difficult time believing much of anything they say.

o      Also noticed that The Washington (com)Post, The New York Times, The Seattle Times and a couple other communist propaganda rags are attempting to spin for Biden. They’re so far in the tank that it is hopeless to expect them to print any truth or objectivity. Fortunately, the mainstream media’s credibility resides several leagues below whale manure so they’ll only impact their left wing cult readers. Just consider the source and move on.

Huffington Post focused on the CNN and CBS polls that showed Biden as the winner among viewers.  The only mention of the FOX focus goup came as a footnote at the end of the posting and questioned its validity because of the sponsor’s potential ties to the McCain campaign.


·      On the other hand, Frank Luntz just quizzed his focus group on FOX (which was, strangely enough, sponsored by Budweiser, owned by Anheuser-Busch, of which Cindy McCain’s Hensley company is the third largest distributor). Nearly all of them thought Palin did an excellent job and, perhaps, won the debate. When she talked about responsibility — both on Wall Street and in Washington – the dial numbers went extremely high. Many respondents, meanwhile, said she came off as a “regular American.” However, only three respondents in the group said they had moved towards voting for the McCain-Palin ticket.


Again, same facts, different assumptions.  Both blogs covered the same news that mainstream media outlets carried, but cherry-picked the news and conformed it with headlines and a narrative to fit their views.  The McCain campaign going negative was a sign that the end was near for Huffington Post readers, and a sign that the campaign was alive and well for Hot Air readers.  The New York Times story on Obama’s connection to William Ayers was another cover-up by the mainstream media for Hot Air readers, and an example of Obama’s virtue for Huffington Post readers.


Was it what I expected?  Yes.  Could you use each site as your primary news source and have an idea of what’s happening in the world?  Yes.  Would you be well-rounded?  No.  A few things did surprise me.  Huffington Post was much more negative, snarky and mean-spirited than Hot Air.  It also focused about 80% of its stories casting McCain and Palin in a negative light and seemed to be running more of an anti-McCain campaign than anything pro-Obama.  There was also absolutely no room for opposing views on the site.  Hot Air, in contrast, was much more pro-Republican, if not entirely pro-McCain.  It was much more of a rallying cry, i.e. he’s our guy and we’re sticking behind him.  There was also more room in the postings and comments for discussion and debate than I observed on Huffington Post.  The question is whether that is a function of the election and where McCain stands in the polls, or just the nature of the two sides (I suspect the former).


We go back to the menu board:  voters in this election have access to information and resources like none before but don’t ever have to listen to or interact with the opposing side.  The transformative power of technology is once again the two-edged sword, opening the dialogue while at the same time creating an atmosphere of partisanship, spin and bias.



How the Moderator Became the Debate

Anyone who says the transformative power of technology is not the game-changer in this year’s presidential race, wake up.  The power of the blogosphere to drive the political discourse in this country was front and center once again in the days leading up to the vice-presidential debate between Senator Biden and Governor Palin.


The day before the debate, the conservative blog WorldNetDaily posted an “exclusive” on debate moderator Gwen Ifill, stating the host of “Washington Week” on PBS is, “writing a book to come out on the day the next president takes the oath of office that aims to “shed new light” on Democratic candidate Barack Obama and other “emerging young African American politicians” who are “forging a bold new path to political power.” 


This set the blogosphere on fire, eliciting anger from the right that Ifill was biased and should be removed as moderator, and driving accusations from the left that conservatives were stooping to any level to take the pressure off Palin.  The news also proved an opening for conservative critics to dredge up previous criticisms against the journalist, namely her handling of Vice President Cheney in the 2004 debate against Democrat John Edwards:

“ During a vice-presidential candidate debate she moderated in 2004 – when Democrat John Edwards attacked Republican Dick Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton – the vice president said, “I can respond, Gwen, but it’s going to take more than 30 seconds.”

“Well, that’s all you’ve got,” she told Cheney.

Ifill told the Associated Press Democrats were delighted with her answer, because they “thought I was being snippy to Cheney.” She explained that wasn’t her intent.”

Conservative blogs also took the chance to revive complaints logged with PBS earlier this summer criticizing Ifill’s “dismissive” reaction to Governor Palin’s speech at the Republican Convention.

It was only after the WorldNetDaily report spread rapidly online that mainstream media outlets picked up the story.

Turns out that Ifill herself spoke about the book months ago and wrote an essay in Time magazine, incidents that produced nary a bleep on the political radar.  

So, you could argue that conservatives were simply grasping for straws in a bid to protect Palin after her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric. 

You could argue the WorldNetDaily story received greater attention because its release fell curiously close to a debate with higher stakes than anyone could have anticipated. 

But you can’t argue that the mainstream media was caught with its tail between its legs, chasing after an online exclusive and explaining itself for failing to report the story earlier.  And you can’t argue the ways in which this episode demonstrates the power and perhaps, the purpose, of the online community.