Friday, April 18, 2008

Passion and Technology Drive New 21st Century Campaign

Barack Obama Rally

Ronald Brownstein, over at the National Journal, argues that a concatenation of forces this political season has created a model of electoral politics never seen before, "The First 21st-Century Campaign":
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.

On virtually every front, the two candidates’ efforts dwarf those of all previous primary contenders—not to mention presumptive GOP nominee John McCain. It’s easy to miss the magnitude of the change amid the ferocity of the Democratic competition. But largely because of their success at organizing supporters through the Internet, Clinton and, especially, Obama are reaching new heights in raising money, recruiting volunteers, hiring staff, buying television ads, contacting voters, and generating turnout. They are producing changes in degree from prior primary campaigns so large that they amount to changes in kind.

“This campaign does look dramatically different from any previous campaign,” says veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “My guess is, it is a watershed. The next time somebody runs for president, it is going to look a lot more like this than like 2000 or 1996 or even 2004.”

The transformation is visible in every direction. Through the end of February, Obama had raised more than six times as much money as John Kerry, the last Democratic nominee, did through the first two months of 2004, and Clinton had collected more than five times as much. In state after state, the two campaigns are organizing levels of voter outreach through phone banks and door-to-door canvasses previously seen only in presidential general elections—if even then. And through e-mail and the distribution of online videos, the candidates are communicating directly with previously unimaginable numbers of voters: By early this month, videos produced by the Obama campaign had been viewed 37 million times on YouTube. “I’ve never been in an election where the capacity you have to go door to door, or register voters, or you name the task is this enormous,” says Paul Tewes, a veteran Democratic organizer who ran Obama’s Iowa and Ohio campaigns.

Each of these advances is rooted in the same fusion of passion and technology: the intense emotions generated among Democrats by George W. Bush’s polarizing presidency combined with the relentless advance of information technology. “If I had to boil down what has really happened in the election cycle, it is [that] you are finally seeing the real fruition of the full power of … the Internet on politics,” says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a Democratic group that studies campaign tactics and technology.

This surge of activity has helped to fuel record participation in the Democratic competition....

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.

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.

This is an interesting argument, but only time will tell how robust is the thesis.

If it's that "the intense emotions generated among Democrats by George W. Bush’s polarizing presidency" have combined with other variables to produce this year's unprecedented state of affairs, then maybe after four years of Democratic Party rule in Washington - perhaps under a Barack Obama administration - we might see a return of complacency set in, which restores politics to the normal dynamics of change and consolidation that accompanies our periodic moments of revolutionary politics. Take away the youth generation's hunger for change - and this is the key group driving the dynamics of Brownstein's new politics - and American politics could recycle back to traditional patterns voter mobillization.

Voter turnout was higher in earlier eras of great transformation, in the 1960s, for example, just when television really took off as the technological catalyst that replaced parties as the central organizers of political campaigns. But young Americans got the vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1972, and voter turnout declined for decades as the drama and tumult of the rights revolution and the war in Vietnam settled down into a post-1970s consensus and stability.

By 1996, when President Bill Clinton was elected to a second term amid relative peace and prosperity, voter turnout was 49 percent of the entire electorate, with young Americans the least likely to exercise the suffrage.

Perhaps after a decade of the new Internet-fueled politics during Democratic Party hegemony, we'll also see a decline of the polarization-driven voter mobilization, with the country returning to it's traditional patttern of generalized indifference among the college-age demographic cohort.

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