Obama, the Halo Effect, and What's Changed

I am not a Mac user. But I'll freely admit I had one of my monitors refreshing with MacRumorsLive's coverage of the Steve Jobs WWDC keynote, with an audio feed from Moscone West running in the background. When it comes to operating systems, I am a swing voter. Heck, I even identify a little with the poor PC guy in the ads, and think the Mac guy is a smarmy little twerp. Nonetheless, I'm thinking of casting my first "vote" for a Mac in 2008. It's not that I dislike my Windows system. Every other PC I've had has been badly outrun by the combination of bloatware outrunning the memory allocation, but not this one. I have my XP tuned the way I like it, but it's a lame duck.  It's the unfortunate fact of an uninspiring new standardbearer, Vista, has me seriously thinking about switching to the Cult of Steve.

But it's not only that. The sheer gravitational pull of the Mac / iPhone / iPod halo is simply too much. It's irrational. I see lots of friends switching to Macs and tapping away on iPhones. It was different back in the early '90s back when Mac was this goofy platform you couldn't extend with a clunky black and white GUI. Or even last year when those suckers stood in line to shell out $600 for a buggy, locked down phone. But for me, this July 11th will be a different story.

Doesn't this remind you a little of the current political climate?

This will indulge a little in the Mac vs. PC stereotype as applied to politics, but I'll take it a little further.

Obama is the shiny new Jobsian creation that can do no wrong, word of which spreads like wildfire among the wired.

Traditional campaigns are the aging, once invincible Microsoft regime. That's Hillary -- and I'm afraid, John McCain.

The old, implausible, not-gonna-happen John Sculley-era Apple was the panoply of failed "reform" candidates -- Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley, and Howard Dean. There's a reason they called them "Atari Democrats." You don't hear much about Atari anymore.

At the Presidential level, I am not a swing voter. But I see the same halo effect that I think many swing voters are feeling. The Obama crowds are a big, big deal. Six million email addresses and 1.5 million volunteers is a big, big deal. I love Obama's website just like I love Apple's. I love the insider, behind the scenes videos that conventional campaigns would never think about doing. Little things like the fist bump humanize the guy and create the illusion that he's 20 years younger than he actually is.

Whatever we many think of Obama, his marketing has been exceptional.

None of this is enough to make me want to vote for Obama, but you have to be concerned about what the true swing voter is experiencing.  Thronging crowds vs. green backdrops... OS X Leopard vs. Vista...

A number of pundits have begun to grapple with the question of why Obama succeeded where the Atari Democrats and their successors failed. All plausible explanations revolve, in one way or another, around the net.

Marc Ambinder says it's the transparency and the creation of an online feedback loop that made supporters feel connected to one another and the campaign:

One, by direct feedback, including repeated, informal contacts from the campaign letting them know precisely what their time and money was doing and how it was actively changing the system. (Joe Trippi, in 2004, was on to this when he would put up that big red bat and watch as it filled with donations.)

Two: By personal touches. One of the best ways that MyBO.com helped to counteract the sense of collective anonymity in campaigns was by linking folks of like minds together, sometimes by geography but mostly by affinity groups, much like the Republican National Committee did so successfully in 2004. A key subconcept here is ownership. Through the campaign, volunteers were given ownership responsibilities over particular slices of the electorate – a list of people to persuade, a tranche of activists to mobilize.

Micah Sifry looks at the structure Obama has built and how it will continue if Obama wins:

Here's what Obama says about his thinking: "One of the things that I'm really proud about this campaign," he told an audience in Indianapolis on April 30, "is that we've built a structure that can sustain itself after the campaign." He then talks about how he won so many states, including states like Idaho. It was because of volunteers, he says, "they built the campaign." We didn't originally have big plans for Idaho, he tells his listeners, "but people made this structure."

Fifteen years ago, it was harder for cult phenonema to spread. Mainstream media erected barriers around content, and there just wasn't that much of it to go around. Yes, your friend or relative may have owned a Mac, but nothing in mainstream culture reinforced their recommendation. Your exposure to political media was limited to a seven minute evening news segment and the newspaper -- nothing like the 24-hour information buffet that exists today. That wasn't a lot of room for upstarts to build up a head of steam.

Today, consumers can self-select their media. It doesn't matter that a relatively small percentage actually do. It's the passion within that small, energized core of users that matters. These small groups make for more interesting stories that wear down the ranks of the previously passionless and unaffiliated by attrition, just like everyday there seemed to be fewer Clinton supporters than the day before, and there are fewer PC users.

In the past, it's not that guys like Gary Hart never caught on. They did. And Democrats have nominated insurgents before. But it feels different this time, and it is.

What the Internet has done is create a commons for the insurgents to organize on day one. The existence of a dedicated channel feeding the grassroots as if by umbilical cord massively reinforces the group's commitment level and allows it to attract new followers. And though a national candidate like Obama might have made it big in another era, I'm not sure a niche candidate like Ron Paul would have found his constituency without the Internet.

We may be entering an era in which political insurgents, or at least those with the capacity of inspire the energized core, are now institutionally advantaged relative to frontrunners. The advantages that establishment candidates can bring to bear are atrophying, largely because they fail to inspire a sense of urgency in the increasingly powerful activist base. The endorsements and the high dollar bundlers send a clear signal to the grassroots: you're not needed. That might not have mattered when the grassroots was powerless, and usually only an extension of the campaign volunteer operation. But when the grassroots is self-directed and empowered by the network, it's a big, big problem when you're running as the "inevitable" candidate a la Hillary Clinton. 

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Apple's OS X market share:

Apple's OS X market share: <8%

Microsoft's Windows market share: >90%

Apple's market value: 164 bil

Microsoft's market value: 258 bil

Apple, like Obama, may appeal to professionals and the rich, but when it comes to raw votes, whether cast in a ballot box or the marketplace, often the old, dull but familiar will win through. And though I love Apple (I write this on my Macbook while listening on my iPod), I know that the vast bulk of my friends and family are afraid of the strange and different operating system I use, and would never consider risking their money on one.

There's something to be said for familiarity.

Market share and lifetime value

This is mostly a warning. Apple isn't anywhere near overtaking PC's in raw numbers worldwide.

But you're starting to see things like this:

Apple's rapidly rising mindshare amongst current generation college students is setting the company up for an "aging phenomenon" that will spur further market share and revenue growth as those students enter the work force, investment bank Morgan Stanley said Wednesday.

A recent higher-education survey cited by analyst Katy Huberty reveals that roughly 40 percent of college students say their next computer purchase will be a Mac, well ahead of Apple's current 15 percent market share in the demographic.

And this:

Apple's market share in what NPD calls the "premium" category, or laptop and desktop PCs selling for $1,000 or more, is nothing short of phenomenal: 66 percent. That's right, two-thirds.

With the exception of the Mac Mini, all Apple computers sell for more than $1,000. "If you don't give people a choice, people will spend more," Stephen said.

None of this does anything to debunk the young/rich stereotype, but the trendlines are pretty clear. And if you introduce the concept of "lifetime value" -- a young person who is "locked in" to a political party for life after voting for it 2-3 times in a row has far more value than an older voter who only has a handful of elections left.

In the past, the Apples of the world, and the Atari Democrats of yore, have never quite broken through into the mainstream. This is largely because of mass media. But with the rise of the Internet and segmented media, it's easier to make niche cultural phenomena stick.

A breakthrough like the one Obama experienced in the primary, or the one Apple is experiencing now, may not have been possible until the present moment. Time will tell whether or not the trend holds.

No college Kids are intrested in Macs

College kids + Much Much Much more expensive computers=PHAT CHANCE

Keep the student discounts in mind

One of the big advantages Apple has with college students is the ease of purchase, with solid software packaging, and the decent hardware student discounts and fantastic software student discounts (Adobe products, for instance, go for more than $1000 less than list price). Many under-21 students have owned some generation of an iPod (and there's a free iPod Touch, now, with any of the MacBook family). There's also a style component--where the small, black/white/silver designs hold a lot of sway with students.


At my college

Next to no students owned a Mac. And the price of the Mac with Discounts is still more then a PC

Ok, good. You have analyzed

Ok, good. You have analyzed Obama's success. Let's just give up and join them since they have all the cool toys.

Patrick, I agree and disagree.

I agree in that Obama is way ahead of the curve in terms of online activism, networking, and fundraising.  He certainly has an advantage among the facebook/youtube/millenial voter demographic.  This is a model that needs to be copied by the GOP starting NOW.  I also think you are dead on accurate in that the days of big money bundlers and old party hack endorsements are a thing of the past.

That being said, I don't think the Obama campaign is necessarily at a huge advantage among all voters.  How many people actually use myspace, facebook, youtube, etc.  Now whittle that number down to how many people actually use it for political activism.  How many people over the age of 40?  Over the age of 65?  Older voters are the biggest voting block, and they vote in the highest percentages.  I agree 100% that the Obama is the future, and the GOP should (as they will inevitably) copy that model.  However, I don't think that this new model has the ability to reach as many voters at this point in time.  We are still at somewhat of a generational gap when it comes to technology in this country.

Two points, and a suggestion:

First, great post.  I am also worried about this affect, and I even saw a study where Obama was linked to the iPod and McCain was linked to the Zune.

Second-- at the end of the day, more people still purchase Blackberries than iPods.  Blackberries even gained market share.  The Blackberries are not cool, but they are "cool enough."  That is, it is clear to everyone that RIM is listening and hard at work creating great products.  Furthermore, for most people, they do the job better than the iPod does.  Apple got their edge because the latest products from Microsoft frankly stink.  That's not true with RIM, so they are holding their own.

Moving away from the analogies: if you're worried about some sort of self-sustaining avalance of momentum, then the answer is to blunt it as early as possible.  Before Obama is so popular that his negatives get lost or ignored, you've got to go after him. Hillary was too focused on the glass ceiling to go after Obama's glass jaw.   I can't help asking myself, 'What would Rudy Guiliani say about Barack Obama?"

And cede nothing.  McCain should go on a campus tour and work hard to build a campus network.  He should go to black churches.  He should consider this a 50 state race.




Do not overestimate the power of the Internet

You have to remember that there is significant percentage of the population that never looks at Obama's website (or any other candidate's site for that matter).  Most of these people are older who, despite all the hype about Obama bringing in young people, are more likely to vote.  I will believe all the hype about under-26 voters turning out in droves when I see it. (It may well happen this time, but it never has before).

Ron Paul and Howard Dean (in 2004)  also raised a lot of money online but did not win their nominations.  

So what is the difference?

FIrst, the MSM and Hollywood backed Obama, giving him name recognition that Paul and Dean never had.  Second, Hillary made some strategic blunders by not understanding the delegate selection process.  It is telling that despite Iraq, the economy, and antipathy toward the GOP, McCain is still competitive with Obama.



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