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McCain’s Web Win

Campaign strategists and Facebook’s cofounder discuss the 2008 election.
December 12, 2008

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on what worked and what didn’t. (Under the ground rules for the event, the names and titles of participants could not be published, but some participants granted interviews during breaks.)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.

Hughes explained that from the moment users first logged in to the Obama site– or MyBO–they should have been automatically invited to join a local group. Instead, people had to go to an “events” link and take additional actions, such as clicking on a Google Maps application and taking the initiative to join already planned events. “We should be able to suggest a group to you,” Hughes said. “We made people do a little too much work.”

Hughes also said that future political campaigns could re-create their entire social-networking apparatus within existing sites like MySpace and Facebook, rather than mount partial such efforts, as was done in 2008. For example, Obama had three million supporters on Facebook. Hughes set things up so that these Obama Facebook supporters were told who, within their networks of friends, lived in a swing state, so they could exhort them to register, vote, and otherwise organize. In the future, Hughes said, “we could re-create our entire website on Facebook,” including all the blogging, meeting tools, donating tools, and other features of MyBO. (On a personal note, Hughes, who recently turned 25, said he will not be taking a job in the administration but rather will do private consulting.)

On the McCain side, officials said that one of the more successful strategies was buying ad words on Google, so that links to the campaign’s paid messages would appear when people searched for terms like “McCain” or “Joe the Plumber.” Indeed, some of these officials had high praise for the rapid service provided by Google’s marketing department. The McCain camp was able to very rapidly buy new words and get fresh ads posted during critical moments, including when Sarah Palin was first named as the vice-presidential nomination, and capitalize on the initial rush of Google searches performed by potential voters. (One of yesterday’s more interesting revelations: in the days leading up to McCain’s vice-presidential announcement, the Web team prepared five mock websites for five potential pairings. The McCain-Palin matchup was not among them.)

Looking ahead to 2010 and 2012, Mike Connell, a former Bush operative and president and CEO of New Media Communications, a company based in Richfield, OH, that provided the Web infrastructure for the McCain campaign, said that the balance of technological power is poised to shift to the Republicans. “It will be our most favorable environment for embracing new technology,” he said, “because of the precedent set by the Obama campaign.”

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