WASHINGTON - Barack Obama’s ascendancy comes with a popular affirmation: “Yes, we can.” Maybe it should be “Yes, we click,” as his presidential campaign takes online politics to new levels.
Obama became the front-runner for the Democratic nomination this month after a string of primary and caucus victories, and his inspirational appeal and effective campaign organization are getting most of the credit for his stunning success.
But there is another major factor: smart use of new technology, from record-breaking fundraising to Facebook widgets attracting new supporters and mass texting to keep his backers connected.
While every candidate in this year’s presidential contest has used the Internet far more effectively than anyone who ran in 2004, Obama is so far ahead of other candidates in Web traffic, social networking and user-generated video that he’s in a class by himself.
“Barack Obama is successful because he is Barack Obama, and his message is spot-on with Democrats,” said David All, a Republican strategist specializing in new media. “But he is leveraging that with the most effective, comprehensive online strategy of any campaign. He’s using the tools that help you find and mobilize new voters.”
Andrew Rasiej, a leading analyst of online politics, said the Obama campaign “has come the closest to achieving the Holy Grail of politics on the Internet - converting online enthusiasm to offline action.”
Other candidates also have struck gold on the Web this election cycle: Obama’s lone remaining Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, has mobilized an army of social-networking contacts into an outreach campaign of cell phone callers. Democrat John Edwards developed a fervent following in the liberal blogosphere, and was one of the first candidates to hire popular bloggers.
Republican Ron Paul’s backers pioneered “money bombs,” and set a one-day mark with a fundraising haul online of $6 million last year. Republican Mike Huckabee, on a shoestring budget, generated high Web traffic on his site by welcoming user-generated videos, many of them inspired by Huckabee’s tongue-in-cheek Internet ad with Chuck Norris.
And John McCain, the likely GOP nominee who showed how online fundraising could fuel a campaign in 2000, has been a leader in search advertising. His campaign bought thousands of keywords on Google and Yahoo portals designed to lure users to McCain’s Web site. Eric Frenchman, an Internet strategist for McCain, estimated the campaign brought in $3 to $4 for every $1 spent on search ads.
But the extent of Obama’s online fundraising prowess - $28 million in January, with signs that total will be exceeded this month - has outstripped all competitors and stunned many political analysts. About 90 percent of that money came in donations of $100 or less, allowing donors to give again every few weeks - up to the limit of $2,300 each for the primary and general elections.
GOP strategist All said he knew Obama was onto something when he visited a friend in Ohio last summer who planned to contribute $10 or $15 a month to Obama. “That campaign understood ahead of everyone else that you don’t need to rely on mega-bucks and bundlers, and I’m afraid some Republicans still don’t get that,” All said.
Obama’s huge donor base, now approaching 1 million, allowed a long-shot campaign to grow into a national force, outspending Hillary Clinton in state after state. And it freed up Obama to campaign while Clinton had to spend time with fundraising events.
“This is a wonderful, new development,” said Zephyr Teachout, a leader of the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, which raised a total of $27 million online over many months. “Instead of calling rich people for money, you can concentrate on your campaign.”
The campaign invested early in Internet infrastructure, spending $2 million in 2007 on software and hardware. Some of Obama’s new-media leaders, such as Joe Rospars, came from the Dean campaign and Blue State Digital, a consulting firm.
Steve Westly, a former eBay executive and California co-chair for Obama, said the campaign counted on tech-savvy supporters to “put together the very best online fundraising tools,” which really kicked in as Obama gained momentum.
In California, the Obama campaign used the Web-management tools of Central Desktop to organize its field operation. But the Clinton campaign, using online networking and more traditional campaigning, relied on its army of cell phone users to make 2 million calls in the weekend before the primary. Clinton won California by 9 percentage points.
The Obama campaign has gone beyond fundraising in its use of other new technologies. The goal is to foster a community that does more than give money - writing e-mails and letters to superdelegates, attending house parties and other events, making phone calls and going door to door.
It helps that many supporters are younger voters who are digital natives. They helped make Obama speech clips and a “Yes We Can” music video as popular as Britney Spears on YouTube. Internet activists were also attracted to Obama’s early support for the free use of video content such as TV networks’ campaign debate clips.
“Friends” of Obama on Facebook get automatic news feeds from the campaign sent to their profiles, which are then seen by other friends. The campaign mass-texts news updates (“CNN just projected Obama wins Wisconsin”) and reminders of where to vote in upcoming primaries.
“The use of texting is a big thing, a very effective way to communicate and give people a way to take action,” said Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.
A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project last month found that 27 percent of those under 30 had received campaign news through social-networking sites. Rasiej and All said many campaigns are just discovering the value of social networks.
“A primary means of political persuasion has always been people talking to each other - at the dinner table, over the water cooler,” Rasiej said. “Now with these tools it’s like having conversations on steroids.”
The Obama campaign Web site, barackobama.com, has attracted more traffic than others, according to several surveys, and makes an effort to keep supporters engaged.
Amy Fried, a political scientist at the University of Maine, conducted an experiment last year, signing up with the Obama and Clinton campaigns online. “There was a higher volume of messages from the Obama campaign, and they were doing more,” Fried said.
That’s a reflection of the Obama campaign’s efforts at meshing online and offline activities. A quick survey by Micah Sifry, Rasiej’s colleague at techpresident.com, showed there were many more locally organized house parties and other events for Obama than the other two Democrats. One example from mid-January: 189 in San Francisco for Obama, 29 for Edwards and nine for Clinton.
Teachout, the Dean campaign veteran who has done some volunteer work for Obama, said Obama’s organizers learned from both the Dean and the George Bush campaigns of 2004 about ways to use the Internet to supplement field organizations.
One Dean veteran who competed fiercely with the Obama campaign - Joe Trippi, chief strategist for Edwards - praised Obama for building the best Internet-driven, “bottom-up” campaign he has seen in politics.
“We were like the Wright Brothers (in 2004), a flimsy little thing with propellers,” Trippi told a New Democrat Network gathering last week in Washington. “Just four years later, they’re landing on the moon.”
(Staff writer Mary Anne Ostrom contributed to this report.)