McCain’s organization is playing to an older base of supporters. But it seems not to have grasped the breadth of recent shifts in communications technology, says David All, a Republican new-media consultant. “You have an entire generation of folks under age 25 no longer using e-mails, not even using Facebook; a majority are using text messaging,” All says. “I get Obama’s text messages, and every one is exactly what it should be. It is never pointless, it is always worth reading, and it has an action for you to take. You can have hundreds of recipients on a text message. You have hundreds of people trying to change the world in 160 characters or less. What’s the SMS strategy for John McCain? None.”
The generational differences between the Obama and McCain campaigns may be best symbolized by the distinctly retro “Pork Invaders,” a game on the McCain site (it’s also a Facebook application) styled after Space Invaders, the arcade game of the late 1970s. Pork Invaders allows you to fire bullets that say “veto” at slow-moving flying pigs and barrels.
But it’s not that the campaign isn’t trying to speak to the youth of today, as opposed to the youth of decades ago. Lately McCain has been having his daughter Meghan and two friends write a “bloggette” from the campaign trail. The bloggette site features a silhouette of a fetching woman in red high-heeled shoes. “It gives a hipper, younger perspective on the campaign and makes both of her parents seem hipper and younger,” says Julie Germany, director of the nonpartisan Institute for Politics, Democracy, and the Internet at George Washington University. The McCain campaign did not reply to several interview requests, but Germany predicts that the campaign will exploit social networking in time to make a difference in November. “What we will see is that the McCain online campaign is using the Internet just as effectively to meet its goals as the Obama campaign,” she says. Over the summer, the McCain campaign refreshed its website. But Rasiej, for one, doubts that McCain has enough time to make up lost ground.
A Networked White House?
The obvious next step for MyBO is to serve as a get-out-the-vote engine in November. All campaigns scrutinize public records showing who is registered to vote and whether they have voted in past elections. The Obama campaign will be able to merge this data with MyBO data. All MyBO members’ activity will have been chronicled: every house party they attended, each online connection, the date and amount of each donation. Rasiej sees how it might play out: the reliable voters who signed up on MyBO but did little else may be left alone. The most active ones will be deployed to get the unreliable voters–whether MyBO members or not–to the polls. And personalized pitches can be dished up, thanks to the MyBO database. “The more contextual information they can provide the field operation, the better turnout they will have,” he says.
If Obama is elected, his Web-oriented campaign strategy could carry over into his presidency. He could encourage his supporters to deluge members of Congress with calls and e-mails, or use the Web to organize collective research on policy questions. The campaign said in one of its prepared statements that “it’s certain that the relationships that have been built between Barack Obama and his supporters, and between supporters themselves, will not end on Election Day.” But whether or not a President Obama takes MyBO into the West Wing, it’s clear that the phenomenon will forever transform campaigning. “We’re scratching the surface,” Trippi says. “We’re all excited because he’s got one million people signed up–but we are 300 million people in this country. We are still at the infancy stages of what social-networking technologies are going to do, not just in our politics but in everything. There won’t be any campaign in 2012 that doesn’t try to build a social network around it.”
Lessig warns that if Obama wins but doesn’t govern according to principles of openness and change, as promised, supporters may not be so interested in serving as MyBO foot soldiers in 2012. “The thing they [the Obama camp] don’t quite recognize is how much of their enormous support comes from the perception that this is someone different,” Lessig says. “If they behave like everyone else, how much will that stanch the passion of his support?”