Back during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama's staff often kicked off his stump speeches with a few words from a warm-up act. A young man would walk out on stage. He'd say something like, "Boy, it's good to see you all here! Candidate Obama is about two miles away and will be here shortly. Let's tell him how much we're looking forward to seeing him ..." and the young man would then lead the crowd in the collective exercise of sending Candidate Obama a welcome text message from a hundred or a thousand phones simultaneously.
"I kept shaking my head, saying, 'You all are falling for it, you're falling for it,'" recalled Robert Denton, a professor of communication at Virginia Tech. "But it's that desire — I sent a personal welcome to Obama and signed it myself, and then all of a sudden, right after the event, within moments, I get that text back: 'Thank you for showing up. I need your support.' And wow, it's on my phone!"
This is when Denton says he got his first inkling of what the campaign was up to. And then he witnessed the same trick at a second event.
"By the third event, I was grinning from ear to ear," Denton said. "I thought, 'My goodness! How smart is that?'"
This was a tactic of the most technologically savvy campaign in history, a campaign that, Denton says, marked a watershed in the use of new media in politics for years to come. In Communicator-In-Chief: How Barack Obama Used New Media Technology To Win The White House, Denton and co-editor John Allen Hendricks tally the cumulative new-media onslaught of Obama '08: His website organized more than 150,000 events, helped create 35,000 groups and registered 1.5 million accounts. It raised more than $600 million from 3 million people. His YouTube channel posted 1,820 videos, watched for a total of 14.5 million hours (the equivalent of which, on broadcast television, would have cost $47 million). Obama's Facebook page had more than 3 million supporters. His staff included 90 people working on Internet campaigns.
When Obama sent a text message introducing Joe Biden as his running mate to supporters (some of whom may have wondered how the campaign got their phone numbers), it was deemed the "single largest mobile marketing campaign" ever. Obama was even the first presidential candidate to ever buy advertising on billboards — in video games.
"The difference between the McCain campaign and Obama campaign was just huge, absolutely huge," Denton said. "The thing that made Obama very unique was the amount of resources he allocated toward new media and the span of it: almost every instrument of Web 2.0 and the Internet, he utilized it. He had a strategy almost for every device."
That was then.
The Obama 2012 campaign is now staffing up for a repeat performance, investing millions and posting techie want ads to build up what The New York Times calls its "brute technology force." The '08 campaign, however, was more than an e-campaigning milestone; it was an e-campaign blueprint. And that means that we may never again see the kind of yawning technological advantage again.
Obama, of course, wasn't the first politician on the Internet. Denton and Hendricks trace the medium's political evolution over the past two decades. In the early '90s, use of the Web was largely limited to nonprofits and interest groups posting information, not the candidates themselves. In 1996, just a quarter of the 100,000 candidates running for office in the country had their own home pages. By 2000, the Web was being primarily used for fundraising and mobilization, with little impact on swing voters. Howard Dean gets credit in 2004 for first deploying social media. And then came the all-devices-all-the-time strategy of the Obama campaign.
"Not only was Obama kind of the first, he was on the leading edge and he had the right team," Denton said. "It was not unlike we used to talk about how those who can afford the best consultants can win an election, or if you had the best attorney, you might get off."
So, what will happen this coming year, as it's clear that Obama's potential competitors (and most politicians in Washington, for that matter) have caught on to Twitter, YouTube and text messaging? Was the chance to bludgeon an opponent with "brute technology force" a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?
Denton likens the 2008 race to two teams with different tools. Obama had the right weapon; McCain didn't. Now, everyone has it. But it still matters, Denton said, how they use it.
"You can still continue to see differences," Denton predicted. "It's not so much in the technology, but do you have good people, do they understand the technology? Can they do a better job at it?"
Can they predict what application will be popular next in the perpetual chase to form relationships with voters on their latest favorite platforms?
Whatever happens, we probably won't have a watershed two presidential election cycles in a row. But the last one — and the potential technological arms race to follow — will change campaigns for the indefinite future.
"It means that a lot of media professionals will continue to influence the candidates and the campaign and the process," Denton said. "I don't know if that's totally a good thing."