How the Web Contest Predicted the Real Thing
By Jose Antonio Vargas
"The Web called it early," declared Peter Leyden, head of the New Politics Institute, a liberal think-tank analyzing the Internet's impact on politics.
It was nearing 12:30 a.m. at the Google-sponsored party in Charleston, S.C., just hours after the CNN/YouTube debate. This was in late July, during those dog days of summer when Sen. Hillary Clinton was branded by pundits as the favorite for the Democratic nomination. A "flawless campaign," they said of her "tightly disciplined" machine. To Leyden, however, Sen. Barack Obama had the edge -- the Web was saying so. Go on MySpace and Facebook, type "Obama" on YouTube, look at the money he's raising on the Internet, check out the traffic on the increasing traffic on his site, Leyden instructed. There was not much of a contest on the Web. Voters flocked to Obama.
But what about Howard Dean? Dean, the darling of the Web, eventually lost the nomination to Sen. John Kerry.
"Obama is not Dean," Leyden said, "and 2004 is not 2008."
What had been clear since July -- and really since Clinton and Obama announced their candidacies -- was that two distinct strategies were being pursued on the Democratic front.
Through most of last year, from spring until fall, Clinton was ahead when it came to message control, fundraising prowess and organizational mettle. Clinton raised huge sums of money, mostly through bundlers and individuals giving the maximum, but also from first-time donors. Her allies within the Democratic Party, both numerous and formidable, helped her get organized and provided her with an early wave of endorsements, and the legendary Clinton war room was on her side.
Obama, on the other hand, studied the Dean model and improved upon it. He tapped into new donors, many of them also first-time donors giving less than $100 online. He organized outside the party, marrying online enthusiasm with an aggressive, technologically sophisticated on-the-ground, knock-on-doors strategy. And, though Obama has spent more money than Clinton in TV ads in the past few months -- partly because he has had, thanks to his online donors, more money to spend -- he earlier launched an intensive Internet strategy to get his message out. As of last night, 1,020 videos have been uploaded on his YouTube channel, the most viewed channel operated by any of the three leading candidates. Clinton and Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, had uploaded 359 and 197 videos.
The online buzz around Obama in the days leading up to the votes in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana is instructive. Though he lost Pennsylvania by 10 points, Obama narrowed Clinton's lead of more than 20 points in polls. Yahoo! News, the leading online news aggregator, tracked the number of searches for Clinton and Obama in the Keystone State and found that statewide, Obama led with searches, 78 percent to Clinton's 20 percent. Compete.com, an online market research firm, found that the comments by Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which first surfaced in March and resurfaced in late April, did hurt Obama -- but that online interest in the Illinois senator also surged again in the days before Tuesday's Indiana and North Carolina primaries.
Nearly 10 months after that Google party, Leyden stuck by his statement: "The Web called it early." He added yesterday: "As far as voters as concerned online, Obama has won this thing. And if Clinton somehow wrestles the nomination back, which is what she's trying to do, all these voters that have invested time on Obama online are not going away. What's been mobilized online is a force to be reckoned with."
"The Internet is a really good indicator of under-the-radar public sentiment, away from what the pundits and cable shows talk about. Listening to them early on, you'd think Clinton had the nomination wrapped up," noted observer Zach Kempf, a 28-year-old Brigham Young University student, last night. "But she didn't. She won't. Online, where a lot of voters are, Obama won months ago."
Kempf asked the first video question at the CNN/YouTube debate last fall. As it happens, he's an Obama supporter -- then and now.
This is the second in a series of online columns on our growing "clickocracy," in which we are one nation under Google, with e-mail and video for all. Please send suggestions, comments and tips to vargasj-at-washpost-dot-com.
Posted at 12:46 PM ET on May 8, 2008
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