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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., 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.

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 8, 2008; 12:46 PM ET
Categories:  The Clickocracy  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: McCain, on Daily Show, Runs Through Runningmate Options
Next: Obama Hits the House Floor


Yes, but...

...the web also called it for Ron Paul!

Posted by: Don | May 9, 2008 3:03 PM | Report abuse

"Conservatives rule the Airwaves. You know, RADIO. That Thing WORKING Stiffs listen to while struggling in the Partisan Politics destroyed economy!"

Ooohhh, big bad RADIO, you guys will be well positioned to win the 1936 election (was McCain eligible to run in that one??)

Posted by: kreuz_missile | May 9, 2008 1:07 PM | Report abuse

I think there is some truth the story Obama utilize the internet to his advantage by the time Clinton & McCain caught on it's was little too late.

Posted by: Jacie | May 8, 2008 7:32 PM | Report abuse

The dynamics are different between the parties. Whereas many college age kids typically vote Democratic, who is out there for the Republicans? Obama tapped into an overlooked part of the electorate that favors his party: the youth. The YouTube generation. The Facebook/MySpace generation. You can't say the same for McCain and even if he did, that isn't the engine of change for the Republican Party.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 8, 2008 4:22 PM | Report abuse

I never comment here, but this post is completely ridiculous. The internet is many great things, but it is not a prophet. It certainly was not with Dr. Paul who's supporters scream louder and are more active online than most other candidates.

Does this goggling hold true for republicans? The best it can do is represent the current searching mood of the public which is using the internet.

Like polling, fundraising, and other measurements, it is an indicator of support but is not the only factor to be considered, which is the conclusion that this article certainly suggests.

Posted by: Gil | May 8, 2008 1:40 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: JakeD | May 8, 2008 1:30 PM | Report abuse

They are very firm believers in "Freedom of Speech"(THEY approve of)! ;~)

Posted by: RAT-The | May 8, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

JakeD-I am not saying Juan McAmnesty is treading "Thin" Ice;

but realize, it is over the Rio Grande! ;~)

Posted by: RAT-The | May 8, 2008 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Exactly, RAT-The, and they complain that you and I spend TOO MUCH time on-line?!

Posted by: JakeD | May 8, 2008 1:25 PM | Report abuse

The "Greens" that have hi-Jacked the Dimocrat Party, are Internet abusers.

But, the Dimocrat Socialist Party is where that is going to Stop.

Conservatives rule the Airwaves. You know, RADIO. That Thing WORKING Stiffs listen to while struggling in the Partisan Politics destroyed economy!

There comes a Reckoning in November!

MUCH can/Is about to happen between Now, and Then! ;~)

Posted by: RAT-The | May 8, 2008 1:22 PM | Report abuse

And, when John SIDNEY McCain wins in November, what will be the "explanation" of the Internets?

Posted by: JakeD | May 8, 2008 12:51 PM | Report abuse

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