Friday 20 April 2018

Yes we can... at the click of a mouse

Lise Hand saw at first hand the results of the world's first social network election. The Obama campaign marshalled the online vote like never before and set a blueprint for the future

For a few hours on a blessedly balmy November night in Chicago, the green rectangle of Grant Park felt like the centre of the world.

It was election night, November 4, 2008, and an expectant mass of people, dark-skinned and fair-skinned, old, middle-aged and young were indivisible in the dark, a sea of shapes lit only by the giant screens where an astonishing story was unfolding.

Before 200,000 pairs of disbelieving eyes, red states turned blue as Barack Obama's watchword, 'Hope', mingled with tension and jubilation.

And then at 10pm, a short sentence flashed up on the huge screen: "CNN Projects Barack Obama the Winner".

Pandemonium. Wave after wave of tumultuous celebration rose into a night air which crackled with the electric feeling that something historic was taking place. Change.

Out onto the stage strode the tall, skinny victor, the 47-year old son of a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother, a rank outsider at the start of the greatest race in politics, and now the 44th President-elect of the United States of America.

The words of Barack Obama soared. Time and again he invoked the three little words which had swept him into office. "Yes we can," he called out. And from the darkness echoed thousands in affirmation: "Yes we can."

So how did an unknown senator from Illinois pull off such an improbable victory in 21 months? Simply put, it was all about communication. No other modern politician had ever tapped so brilliantly into the technological and emotional zeitgeist.

Crucial to his success was his campaign's use of the internet for both fundraising and for getting out the message. Obama was the first major-party candidate to eschew using public campaign funds and instead his campaign raised all its money through private donations.

The response was staggering. In 21 months he raised a total of $750,000,000, with more people donating to his campaign than any other in history -- in September 2008, Obama obliterated all records by raking in $153m. And in what would prove to be a telling figure, Obama's campaign received $10m in the 24 hours after his opponent John McCain unveiled Sarah Palin as his running-mate.

This huge war chest enabled Barack Obama to spent far more than the Republicans on TV ads (he out-spent John McCain by $100m), particularly in key states like Florida and Ohio.

But most significantly, his team claimed that 80pc was raised from small internet donations of under $200. By harnessing the social media to get voters involved, it meant that now anyone could have a personal stake in the candidate -- something which would have a seismic effect among the huge swathes of disenfranchised citizens.

Via the internet, the campaign particularly targeted 18-29 year olds through sites such as Myspace and Facebook, honing in on issues which were important to them and building a chatty, accessible online personality. The campaign garnered five million supporters on social networks, 50 million viewers watched campaign-related Obama videos on YouTube, it sent out one billion emails and amassed three million mobile text subscribers.

Nor was the internet deployed as a blunt, one-size-fits-all weapon of communication. Obama's team used extremely innovative tools such as the voter registration site, which signed up almost a million new people, and also a hugely effective tool, 'Neighbor-to-Neighbor', which allowed volunteers to gather valuable information about voters in their areas, a strategy which proved extremely effective in swing states.

At its launch in September 2008, Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and an online guru for the Obama team, described 'Neighbor-to-Neighbor' as "a huge leap forward.

Instead of doing anonymous phone-banking and canvassing as campaigns have done in the past, you can log onto the system and in a matter of seconds have a list of undecided voters on your street, many of whom you probably know, that you can target for the campaign."

But Obama wasn't just being heard along the information superhighway --his words were also resonating along the highways of middle America, in the small towns and industrial cities.

For America was a country demoralised by growing recession and never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and weary of the vitriol of red versus blue politics.

Then along came Barack Obama, with his mixed heritage and his graceful oratory and beguiling message first heard in 2004 when the unknown senator declared, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America."

He began to speak of that most totemic force, the 'American Dream', and people responded, including that iconic troubadour of the American road and keeper of the American spirit, Bruce Springsteen, who spoke at an Obama rally in Ohio a week before election day.

"I've spent most of my life as a musician measuring the distance in my music between the American dream and the American reality. The distance between that dream and the reality has grown greater and more painful than ever," Bruce told the 60,000-strong crowd. "I don't know about you, but I want my country back, I want my dream back, I want my America back."

A sophisticated campaign may have taken Barack Obama to the finish-line, but it was the simple clarion-call of Hope and Change which swept him over it, on a warm, wonderful night in Chicago.

Irish Independent Supplement

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