Al Gore may have "invented" the Internet (as his critics occasionally charged) but there is no question that Barack Obama is the first successful presidential nominee to fully exploit the medium's potential. While it is always difficult to know any president-elect's exact plans for a topic as focused as the Internet, a look at how he used the power of social networking and the Internet in general provides an intriguing look into the technical side of an Obama administration.
Obama's Internet strategies owe a significant debt to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who famously used the emerging power of social websites in the 2004 presidential race to build an early and significant campaign warchest- and it is thus not accidental that Dean, as chair of the Democratic National Committee, was also one of the chief architects of the use of the Internet as a strategic weapon under the Obama campaign.
Dean's toolset of choice was the use of distributed social networking sites built on top of Drupal (and later incorporated into the CivicSpace plugins for Drupal) along with the emergence of the MeetUp as a way to organize volunteers and bring together voters with common interests. Four years later, these first, early experiments had grown to become a full spectrum messaging blitz, from Twitter and SMS messages to news feeds, from a veritable barrage of bloggers and YouTube videos to tens of millions of flickr videos, which served not only to educate voters and raise awareness but also to coordinate a get out the vote effort that yielded the largest popular mandate of the last thirty years.
Sen. John McCain's vote getting efforts in contrast were very much focused on twentieth century tools and technologies, and the nimbleness of the Internet generation frequently made McCain's efforts, sophisticated for a person saturated in the television age, seem plodding, awkward and self-serving - much as a person with a few flashlights and unfettered access to the stage can turn even the best illusionist into an embarassing faker.
Within forty eight hours of the introduction of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate for the Republican Party, bloggers working in and around Wasilla, Alaska had brought to light several questionable practices by the Alaska state Governor, and within two weeks, a hacker from Tennessee had even managed to get into her personal Yahoo e-mail. Observations and nuances from each of the debates were captured in video, revealing several awkward moments for both candidates, though McCain's physical gaffes, as the more excitable of the two candidates, seemed as much a fodder for Internet satirists as Nixon's five o'clock shadow or treatment of his dog Checkers, or Carter's killer rabbits, became treatment for an earlier era of lampooners and pundits.
More importantly, perhaps, the coordination offered by the effective use of the Internet played a huge role in getting out the vote. McCain's and Palin's rallies were respectable in a pre-Internet world - 500 to perhaps 10,000 people brought together through phone calls or perhaps e-mail at campaign stops. However, Obama's rallies were an order of magnitude larger, coordinated via a broad range of services. One week in Missouri was particular telling. McCain attended three rallies in front of collectively around 12,000 people. During that same week, Obama appeared before more than 150,000 people in four rallies, each of these coordinated via cell phones or text messages, email or syndicated feed, and when Obama gave his acceptance speech at midnight on the 5th of November, he spoke to more than one million people in Grant Park in downtown Chicago.
The weeks leading up to the election also proved to be a referendum on the future of the main stream media, and while the totals aren't all in yet, the Internet appears to be well ahead in the polls. It's telling that by the time a news story "broke" in the televised or radio news channels, the story was several hours, if not several days old already on the Internet. The news services, which have long had a "corporatist" spin to them, found it difficult to create a strong bias toward any candidate without dubious claims being challenged and often debunked by the rise of a much more militant investigative blogging force.
Organizations such as Democratic Underground and Free Republic served not only to keep people in touch with one another but also became free-flowing (if partisan) news services - twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, devoted to tracking the cloud of both main stream and independent polling results, breaking political scandals, and finally by election day a running tab of results.
Meanwhile, the Main Stream Media fought back with interactive maps that not only showed breakouts by polls but also let users create their own political races in order to see what electoral college states would enable a victory for a favored candidate. Of these, the CNN.com political site was probably the most sophisticated, interactive and up-to-date, letting you even see results at a county by county level.
Ultimately, however, the Obama campaign won the most important election - the money game. Obama and his campaign manager, David Plouffe, settled on the risky strategy of not accepting government financing, but were able to parlay this into a major financial network of small and intermediate sized donors giving anywhere from $5 to the legal maximum of $2300 - made primarily through the Internet. McCain, meanwhile chose to go with the more traditional funding route of approaching wealthy donors to contribute up to the maximum value. The latter strategy backfired, leaving the McCain campaign broke (and heavily dependent upon Republican National Committee) in the last few weeks, even as Obama was able to maintain agility to the extent of doing a $3 million dollar ad buy in the half hour prior to the sixth game of the World Series two weeks before the election.
As the "silly season" to quote President-Elect Obama draws to a close and he forms his new cabinet, its possible (indeed likely) that this same communication infrastructure that was so effective in the campaign will be brought into government. It is likely that both Cabinet Secretaries (the rough equivalent of European parliamentary ministers) and their respective staffs will be given channels by which to blog to their constituencies ... a practise that's also likely to become a staple of the new generation of Representatives and Senators entering in as freshmen in their respective houses. It is even possible that Obama himself will write a blog, though whether the demands placed on him in these challenging times may preclude that.
Either way, there is no question that one of the key hallmarks of the Obama campaign will likely transfer intact to the creation of a new administration - a belief that communication and openness are not just "nice-to-have" toys but are an essential part of the political process, a belief that will be welcome after one of the most secretive and opaque US governments in modern times.
Kurt Cagle is Online Editor for O'Reilly Media, and a truly happy American expat who has spent the last four years watching the US from the outside in Victoria, BC. You can subscribe to his published articles here or follow him on Twitter.