Obama Rides the Internet to the White House

By Kurt Cagle
November 5, 2008 | Comments: 10

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.

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I hope this is the very last column about politics on this blog!!!!

To me, this is a technology oriented site, if you think different that's OK to me (you "own" it) but I will not visit this site any more.

Actually, Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, not Connecticut.

Give the full history. Dean modelled his Internet efforts in 2004 on McCain's use of the Internet for his 2000 campaign.

Akahn and Paul,

Thanks for the correction, an error likely from seeing too much of Joe Biden of late. I was actually one of the people working on the core DeanSpace Drupal extensions back in late 2003, so have fairly fond memories of that particular campaign. McCain did have an Internet presence in 2000, but for a number of reasons, not least of which being the comparative primitiveness of the systems, McCain's use of the technology in that election was not terribly successful, although I think you're right to call me out on it.


After more than thirty years as a programmer, systems architect, CIO and analyst, one of the things that I've come to realize is that software is inherently political. It defines the terms of the debate, establishes what is and isn't possible, and tends to be a reflection of the language used in the conducting of business, governance and society in general.

For the most part, programmers tend to pull in their horns and deliberately choose not to recognize the political nature of what they are doing, because when politics does become involved, it restricts the options that they have in doing their work.

O'Reilly Media is not a political advocacy site, but it is a site dedicated towards exploring the world of the technical community. The Bush Administration had a profound impact upon the direction of technology development, and the incoming administration will likely have an even more profound impact ... and this is relevant to the mandate for the site and its audience.

The last month has been very much focused upon the presidential race, and for the most part O'Reilly has limited its deliberation in that space ... but when politics does impact technology, we will report it.

Kurt Cagle
Online Editor, O'Reilly Media

This isn't even a so much of a political post. If this were an article on "Business xxx uses social networking tools to drive its competition out of business", it would not have raised an eyebrow.

I have a friend for many years, she cannot give one good explanation regarding the rise of Barak Obama, but is totally committed, and arguments have pursued. Today she informed me that she as in the past has told me many times how she dislikes, Bill O'Reilly and again, I am a fan. So today she shocked me by saying, she now likes Bill OReilly and I was so pleased, then she went on to give the reason and it being that you publicly endorsed Barak Obama, and I know for a fact that you have never admitted to endorsing anyone. She said that you made this statement on another network, during an interview. Please respond to this email, so I can forward it to her, because this is certainly going to maybe end our friendship, if I cannot prove my point. How come people are so blinded by this man who no one knew four years ago. Thank y ou Marcia G

Obama’s successful campaign brought him to be the 44th President of the United States and also the 1st African American President of the United States. Both in the rumor mill and in press reports, an outline of an strong>Obama administration has begun to emerge. Obama wants to know all about you if you plan to work in his cabinet or staff. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a person is going to fill a high-responsibility position in America’s federal government, it is in the best interests of the nation and its people that the applicant meets all the requirements and qualifications and will not pose a threat in any form. With all the information Obama asks in his seven-page, 63-question application, you would think the administration would have enough to perform credit repair for everyone who applies. CNN reveals a copy of the questionnaire, which requires all applicants to not only thoroughly elucidate everything they’ve done in the last 10 years or more, but also do the same for their spouse. I hope applicants do indeed get the free credit repair as part of the deal. With that, I’d like to share a few of my favorite questions… (1) Writings: Please list and, if readily available, provide a copy of each book, article, column or publication (including but not limited to any posts or comments on blogs or other Web sites) you have authored, individually or with others. Please list all aliases or “handles” you have used to communicate over the Internet. (2) Electronic communications: If you have ever sent an electronic communication, including but not limited to an E-mail, text message or instant message, that could suggest a conflict of interest or be a possible source of embarrassment to you, your family, or the President-Elect if it were made public, please describe. (3) Please provide the URL address of any Web sites that feature you in either a personal or professional capacity (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, etc.) This is only a taste of the how deep the application goes. So remember, if you plan on taking part in the Obama-Biden “Change” Administration, you’ve better get to stepping. Click to read more on Credit Repair.


I think the confusion arises because O'Reilly Media is owned by Tim O'Reilly, a Silicon Valley tech visionary, not Bill O'Reilly, a conservative television pundit. They are not, as far as I'm aware, even related, save possibly through some distant cousin somewhere.

Tim O'Reilly endorsed Barack Obama a couple of weeks before the election. I've endorsed Obama for some time, but overall as I'm just an editor I feel it was appropriate to just discuss the facts, ma'am.

Kurt Cagle

The NCNA in cooperation with the Republican Party is trying to address the issue of conservative values. The National Council for a New America, or NCNA. The National Council for a New America, or NCNA for short, is a think tank organization devoted to the Republican Party and Republican principles. Consensus is that it is a time for a reboot of conservative values, which heretofore meant getting Rush Limbaugh personal loans for another Vicodin script, but the aim is to arrive at a new place ideologically, by gathering conservatives together and finding out what the common goal among them is. Some people, which are occasionally referred to as the educated, would rather read mortgage loan modification literature than listen to the National Council for a New America.

Way back in 1973 when the Internet was invented by by American computer scientist Vinton Cerf as part of a project sponsored by the United States Defense Department (ARPA) he would have never imagined that it would become a tool for ’soci-political’ revolution in the country.

One may even call the new administration of Obama,as a Government Grant of the internet(netdriven polling),by the internet and for the internet(e-governance)

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