President Barack Obama is in the political doghouse today, but during his campaign, he not only mesmerized the public, he impressed much of the commentariat. What seasoned political observers found particularly impressive was the way he used 21st Century communication to build a nation-wide network of supporters, who were encouraged to organize their own campaigns in their home states, and who fed his campaign coffers with small donations.
He used the internet to recruit and organize 1.5 million volunteers, had two million supporters on Facebook, almost 850,000 “friends” on MySpace and a texting list of more than two million. His YouTube channel featured more than 1800 videos and drew more than 18 million viewings. Commentators generally agreed his information-age organization was key to his success.
The electoral significance of Obama’s use of the internet is clear, but what is its political significance? As I observed the campaign, it occurred to me that he might be able to use communication with his base of organized support as a way of mobilizing enough pressure to move some votes in congress. Obviously, Obama thought of that too, as a perusal of his Facebook site will confirm. The major focus of the site is policy, including specific urgings to his followers to write their senators, sign petitions, join in discussions and the like.
So have modern communications changed the political, as opposed to electoral landscape? On the evidence of the first two years, not really. Although he has accomplished more than many commentators are prepared to grant, it took a lot of compromises, and a majority in both houses of congress that is now history. Today he faces a situation not unlike that which Bill Clinton faced after the mid-term elections of 1994, in which Republications took control of both houses of congress.
In a thoughtful piece for the Brookings Institution, William A. Galston concludes that Obama faces a choice between gridlock and compromise, and that the only workable way forward will be to adopt strategies like those Clinton used. On that evidence, it looks as if – though electoral strategies have changed since the dark ages before the World Wide Web – the political realities have not been budged.
In Canada, a new political star has risen in the west. Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s new Mayor, like Obama, achieved an unexpected victory attributable in large part to his mastery of web-based media – in his case, a well-constructed web page, videos on YouTube, a steady stream of tweets and a Facebook page. The web page features 12 short, well-done videos, each setting out possibly achievable objectives, that are clear without underestimating the complexities involved.
The videos are also posted on YouTube, while on Twitter and Facebook, we find ongoing discussions of policy and other matters among people who follow him, discussions in which he participates regularly. Obama has joined Twitter as well, but in both Facebook and Twitter, Nenshi involves himself in an ongoing conversation, while Obama’s tweets look more like a series of proclamations. Genuine interactivity is difficult but achievable for a mayor, while it is beyond the reach of the American president, no matter how new the communications technology.
Will this make a difference, and make it possible for Nenshi, not only to change the electoral game, but also to move the political goalposts? It will be interesting to watch whether he proves able to draw consistently on the support of his social network “friends” to move votes on city council.
For more on electoral communications check out:
Kaid, L. (2009). CHANGING AND STAYING THE SAME: COMMUNICATION IN CAMPAIGN 2008 Journalism Studies, 10 (3), 417-423 DOI: 10.1080/14616700902812728