I don't much like Barack Obama, a perception that was reinforced by the speech tonight. But I like the way he won. As a student of politics, I consider it something of a duty to understand the way politicians win, even I'd never support them. In the spirit of John McCain's "Well done," I'd like to single out the Obama campaign for some praise tonight, and then return to our regularly scheduled programming.
Most of the commentary on the historicity of the Obama nomination has focused on the first African American to win a major party nomination, but Obama's win also signals a shift in the way that campaigns are waged. The broadcast era is ending, and the era of networked politics is beginning.
Without the 'net, Obama couldn't have won the nomination. We could say that about a great many things given the closeness of the primary race, but in many ways all the other explanations flow from it to a great extent. Obama's celebrity -- which remains the central fact of the race today -- was cultivated online with things like the will.i.am video. The resources to wage aggressive campaigns in the post-Feb. 5 caucus states came from the Internet. The Internet was not a shiny toy or a silver bullet. It was the platform on which the Obama campaign's arsenal of silver bullets was minted.
My colleague Mindy Finn said this best: in 2008 web strategy equals campaign strategy. Any senior strategist that isn't as adept at navigating the Interwebs as they are in spinning the press or lobbing TV ads, even phantom ones, is committing political malpractice.
Too often, we confuse buzzphrases like "getting it" with prescriptions for success. But it really isn't about how many social media accounts you can create. All of that is simply an outgrowth of a realization that the Internet as a platform is becoming as pervasive and decisive as television was in its heyday. Anyone who does not recognize this fact at the end of the 21st century's first decade has no business running major political campaigns.
I have been constantly impressed at the Obama campaign's willingness to execute on this higher strategic plain. The normal announcement of candidacy is reserved for local media hits and press. Vanilla. Traditional. Static. Old. Obama led the way in launching his campaign on its first day online.
And while I wasn't alone in chronicling the failure of Obama's 3 a.m. TXT-the-VP gambit, the original concept was brilliantly simple, one that you could have seen coming for months. The idea is that if you can roadblock major announcements on some sort of online platform -- be it the website or the third screen (cell phones) -- people will willingly part with information such as e-mail address and cell phone numbers to get the info. Indeed, the Obama experiment defied the idea that there is no critical mass in mobile politics.
Unlike a television announcement, the campaign gets a clear deliverable -- personally identifiable information on millions of supporters that has a tangible value. This trend continued tonight, as an Obama organzer took the stage at Invesco Field to egg participants into texting "DNC" to Obama's shortcode to get more cell phone numbers. People responded, 30,000 of them. This is a clear realization that with interactive technology, a simple announcement on TV is no longer ephemeral -- it is convertible into the hard currency of campaigns, ID'd supporters and volunteer hours. Again and again, the Obama campaign has used their biggest platforms -- the announcement, the VP selection, the Convention -- to move people into a medium where they can actually do something with them.
Contrast this with TV model: they send, you receive. It's not that there isn't mass in the old send-receive model, it's that its possibilities are limited compared to two-way and peer-to-peer communications systems. Beyond nice first impressions, you get nothing out of old media: no volunteers, no donors, no e-mails with ZIP+4, zilch. Why do marketers nowadays focus more on activating a core of super-active users, who then serve as an example that pulls the rest of the population along? Because the super-connectness of the nodes at the center of any cultural phenomena makes this possible in a way it wasn't before without appearing cult-like or fringe. Trying to activate marginally interested people at the edges of the process is seeming like more and more of a waste.
Bland, focus-grouped messages that appeal 20% or more to this group but that excite no one will lose to stark, polarizing messages that mobilize core audiences by orders of magnitude more than the average person. This trend is partly what has made politics so polarized and elections so close in this decade. It may be lamentable, but it is an operational reality.
This is what the Obama cult of personality is all about. Yes, it's fun to mock, but it's also right to study it and when the time is right, to use it. After all, Ronald Reagan was also a celebrity who could give a good speech. His moral courage differentiated him from Obama, but it is at our peril that we forget how much of his appeal to middle America derived from qualities he shares with The One. To succeed in a networked age, leaders must be comfortable leading movements and capturing the imagination.
If we don't learn, if not now, then in 68 days, then it will be a long wilderness indeed, and we will be left holding the winningest hand since that person who called me tonight on the land line I never use asking to re-up my newspaper subscription. Yes, there are day-to-day victories in her job -- more sales today than yesterday -- but the trend lines are unmistakable.
So it's time to learn. And work. And win.