Barack Obama dominated Webcentric campaigning, but the Web also helped McCain win–the nomination, that is. During the dark months of mid-2007, when McCain’s finances cratered, his skeletal Web staff ran much of the show, including making television advertisements and bolstering ties to key bloggers. This is what kept him alive to clinch the crucial New Hampshire primary in January of 2008.
That was one insight aired yesterday at a conference in Cambridge, MA, convened by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Top Web strategists and contractors from both camps sat in the same room to share retrospectives on what worked and what didn’t. (Under the ground rules for the event, the names and titles of participants could not be published, but some participants granted interviews during breaks.)
“Senator McCain has an aversion to debt … and forced the situation in June [and] July of 2007, where we went from a great big campaign down to about 35 people trying to run a national campaign,” one key McCain figure said yesterday. “From that summer to New Hampshire, it was the Web strategy that carried us through.” The Web team ran most of the fundraising and organizing functions, and the sole Web videographer started making television advertisements too. “That’s all there was–one guy. It was fun, in a way. We got to do new things.” Among other efforts during that period, the McCain crew courted conservative bloggers, helping soften some of his harsher online critics. “We had the ability to get some buzz out there, get our people energized.”
But even in flush times, the scrappy McCain Web team–never more than 14 strong–was far outgunned by its Obama counterpart, though the exact size of the Obama team was not disclosed. Using Obama Web tools, supporters donated $500 million, created 35,000 volunteer groups, organized 200,000 real-world events, and formed an e-mail list 13 million strong. They also spent some 14 million hours watching campaign-related Obama videos, and used Web interfaces to help make three million calls to voters shortly before Election Day.
Still, in an interview between conference sessions, Chris Hughes–the Facebook cofounder who served as the Obama campaign’s head of online organizing–said that future presidential social-networking strategies could become even more user-friendly, local, and embedded in existing online networks. “I think the biggest struggle for me–I won’t say failure–[the thing] that I wish I did differently, was in not structuring [the Obama social network] so it was local from the start,” he said.