More fundamentally, this transformation may be changing the model of what it takes to succeed in presidential politics. Since the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and the rise of the 30-second TV commercial later in that decade, the ability to communicate effectively on television has arguably been the key to winning the White House; a close second has been the ability to tap big donors for the money to air plenty of TV ads. Those traits remain enormously valuable today.The concrete elements of this are familiar to most SotH and blog readers in general; online social networking, blogging, small online donations, etc. I'm not convinced that this is new, as I agree with Yglesias that Dean was doing a lot of this back in 2004. But Obama's people have married it with other campaigning techniques that Dean hadn't, including some that didn't really exist yet. Facebook and YouTube were around in 2004, but they weren't the behemoths we see today.
But now the ability to inspire large numbers of supporters to work on your behalf—by contributing financially, participating in outreach programs organized by the campaign, or informally talking to friends and family—is joining and, perhaps, eclipsing those television-inspired skills in importance. The change is still incipient, but the unprecedented scale of the Clinton-Obama race suggests that presidential politics may be moving from the television-based network era to an Internet-based networked era in which candidates who can attract and inspire vast networks of supporters will enjoy potentially decisive advantages over those who cannot.
Many observers in both parties think that Obama has seized the advantage over Clinton and moved to the brink of winning their party’s nomination largely because he has aligned his campaign with the bottom-up principles of the networked era, while Clinton initially sought to run a more traditional, top-down campaign. Obama’s success against a rival who began the race with overwhelming advantages by most customary yardsticks—name identification, support from elected officials, and the backing of an established nationwide roster of donors—may go down in history as the tipping point in the way that presidential campaigns are organized and executed.
“I actually believe the Clinton campaign will be the last top-down campaign on the Democratic side,” says Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic organizer who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and John Edwards’s effort this year. “Candidates are going to come into this understanding that they’ve got to figure out ways to be a bottom-up campaign and to make people understand that, ‘yes, you have a voice, and I want you to use your voice.’ ”
Plus, there's one other factor you can't ignore: Obama has pretty much sewn up the nomination, barring a fantastic reversal. Dean used these techniques, but Obama is winning with them. Can't argue with that.
What grabs me about this whole thing is that it may well diminish the importance of television. If it does that, then politics as a whole might be better off. A political landscape that has less to do with silly attack ads, immense lobby dollars and media consultants than activist social networking and small citizen donations? Oh HELL yes, give me some of that.
(And here's another open letter to the Liberals, because I do enjoy these. You functioned as a nearly activist-free, base-free, brokerage party of power for decades. You did it because that's how politics worked. Guess what? That's now officially irrelevant. That base you've been famously neglecting are the only ones who can rescue you.
Not the various former leadership candidates who are still jockeying for power. Not new advertising strategies. Not a new policy document. Certainly not Whatzisname and his 20th century attitudes towards 21st century technology. Nope. You need that base, and you have to give them a reason to care. The Conservative base cares. The NDP base cares. The Bloc base cares. What about yours?)