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April 18, 2008

how presidential campaigns are changing

Ronald Brownstein writes in the National Journal, "In scope and sweep, tactics and scale, the marathon struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton has triggered such a vast evolutionary leap in the way candidates pursue the presidency that it is likely to be remembered as the first true 21st-century campaign."

The visible differences include dramatically increased spending (Obama has already raised more money than George W. Bush raised in his whole reelection campaign); a huge number of contributors (1.3 million people have given to Obama); an immense number of "contacts" between campaigns and voters in various settings (e.g., 37 million viewers have watched particular videos on YouTube); lots of communication among voters; and rapidly rising turnout.

You now need a lot more money, contacts, and votes to win. We don't yet know whether this new obstacle course will produce better or worse presidents than the old systems.

Before 1960, you had to get the support of political organizations that could field large numbers of paid workers and volunteers, who would carry your message face-to-face and door-to-door. The unions and political parties that could produce millions of campaign workers were hierarchical and discriminatory. On the other hand, they had real social contracts with their members. Candidates who rose to the top had paid their dues in ways that were sometimes unsavory (lots of back-scratching) and sometimes quite valuable. They had proven that they were trustworthy.

From 1960-2000, it was crucial to have a skillful political consultant who was responsible for fundraising, polling, and advertising. People like Rove and Carville were very powerful. The candidate also had to be able to raise money from rich people and perform well in debates (although I'm not sure what the research says about the impact of debate performance).

Now the candidate has to draw support from an enormous number of volunteers and contributors, which is an entirely different matter. Reporters often ask me why Obama is using the Internet more effectively than other presidential candidates. I think that's the wrong question. Obama isn't using technology much differently from other candidates, but his supporters are using online tools in greater numbers (he has 776,000 Facebook "friends" right now) and sometimes with more skill than the supporters of the other candidates.

The big story is a shift of power away from campaign apparatus to independent citizens. Brownstein writes, "[Obama's] aides insist that he has emerged not because they have mastered new technology but because he has inspired so many people." Part of the reason is that Obama and his lead organizers have entrusted volunteers with important roles. For example, they give their supporters direct access to their contact lists. But surely the main reason has to do with a message and style that happens to appeal to a large group of engaged--or potentially engaged--citizens. Perhaps the deepest question is what kinds of messages have that kind of appeal. Obama's particular combination of style and ideology is probably not the only one that will draw mass support in the new era of campaigning. In fact, the much more modest boom for Ron Paul suggests that candidates may be able to break in from various points across the political spectrum, including its edges.

April 18, 2008 5:22 PM | category: none


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