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-- HoangTruong - 20 Dec 2008

Obama's (not-so) Secret Weapon: The Internet and Getting Out the Youth Vote


There is a time tested axiom about of who wins political contests: the candidate that controls the media can control public opinion. Barack Obama’s brilliant use of the Internet and his grass roots get-out-the-vote efforts will undoubtedly be studied as a perfect textbook example of utilizing the cost efficient, mass communicative properties of the internet to centralize his political power in a new age attack on the traditional methods of political campaigning.

2008 Election

What’s inherently interesting (and ironic) about Obama’s meteoric stranglehold of political power using the internet was that eight years prior to his candidacy for presidential office, a Republican presidential candidate named John McCain? sent shockwaves through the political arena with his “innovative” usage of a new medium to further his campaign: the internet.

Without a doubt, the single most important Internet moment of the 2000 presidential race occurred during the campaign of Arizona Republican Senator John McCain? , says Julia Glidden, vice president of public affairs at "John McCain? will go down in history as the candidate who did the most to maximize the use of the Internet. His strategists and operatives will also go down in history as pioneers," she says. "[Their primary campaign] will be a model for elections for years to come as to how to best capture and utilize the potential of the Internet ... McCain? is the standard bearer..., the gold standard," she says (telephone interview, 16 November 2000). (Don Lewicki and Tim Ziaukas, The Digital Tea Leaves of Election 2000: The Internet and the Future of Presidential Politics, First Monday, December 2000)

In defeating John McCain? in his presidential bid, Barack Obama used a frighteningly efficient political machine that ran on grassroots campaigning and a get out the [youth] vote movement that fully implemented the Internets massive advantages over the television, the 20th century medium of political campaigns. The internet’s massive reach, especially to young voters that historically have been nonfactors in political contests, coupled with the relatively low cost of utilizing the internet created a perfect storm for Barack Obama’s political candidacy. In order to obtain the highest office in the land, Obama not only had to defeat Hilary Clinton’s entrenched position in the Democratic Party, but also the specter of inexperience and ill effects of lingering bigotry.

Strategies Employed

So how did Obama employ the political potential of the internet so much more effectively than his opponent, John McCain? , who was so lauded for employing just eight years before? Obama’s youth and idealistic rhetoric allowed him to connect most with the target audience of internet political campaigning: the youth vote. Although traditionally a candidate that relied on the youth and poor vote would end up losing (you only need to look back to John Kerry in 2004 to see an example), Obama’s combination of charisma and internet focused strategy kept youth voters involved. In essence, Obama and his volunteer army utilized the internet to make political participation amongst youth voters a thing to be reckoned with.

One of the most effective ways the internet was employed to further Obama’s cause is that the informal and conversational language of the Web allowed a more personal touch to the stories of volunteers. Where as in old times a news paper or a television would allow a selected few voters to voice their opinions, in 2008 Obama’s volunteers and fans supported him in their own words on a variety of online mediums, from social networking sites to blogs to even YouTube? videos (the effect of Obama Girl on the 2008 election could probably be a topic for a whole other paper itself). In fact, peer- to – peer marketing was at the very heart of the Obama internet strategy; Obama’s campaign regularly utilized social networking websites like MySpace? and Facebook along with text messaging to cell phones to influence potential voters from a more personal and trusted source: their friends.

Another strategy that the Obama campaign employed using the Internet was the wealth of information that was available to target voters. By using “microtargeting,” Obama’s campaign was able to synthesize marketing data that included psychographic and behavioral information to allow the campaign to spot voters that would much more likely be Democratic in their voting preference. What is surprising is that back in 2006, there were “growing tensions” in the Democratic Party that the party was falling behind Republicans in the technology front, specifically the usage of databases such as the Republican’s VoterVault? (Nancy Scola, May the Best Database Win?, TechPresident? , Sept 19, 2008).


So what does the use of the internet and the youth vote in the 2008 election tell us about future elections? In other words, does Barack Obama’s presidency signal a fundamental shift in political power through technology in the internet, and a generational change in the youth vote? The answer it seems, would be that internet campaigning is here to stay, but betting on the youth vote to continue to have an increased impact on future elections wouldn’t be a prudent investment.

Thus, although Obama’s campaign bucked the trend of ineffectual youth voting(Obama’s campaign turned out voters 25 years of age and younger in record numbers: "while overall Democratic turnout jumped 90% [from 2004], the number of young Democrats participating soared 135%…According to surveys of voters entering the caucuses, young voters preferred Obama over the next-closest competitor by more than 4 to 1.",8599,1700525,00.html), this would probably be more the outlier than the norm. Obama’s charisma, young age, and coming in the time of an international crisis in the war in Iraq and a domestic crisis in the economy can easily be the factors that have increased civic participation amongst young voters. It is still fairly too early to proclaim that during good times with a more traditional candidate the youth vote would still have the drastic impact that it did in 2008; however the political potential of the internet and the fact that the youth vote are a part of this “internet generation” is undisputed. Thus, the fact that the internet is here to stay as THE political medium of the 21st century will have a positive effect on the political power of young voters in future elections, even during better times and with more traditional “out of touch” candidates.


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