Location: Academic Organisations » MIT World » MIT World Series: The Campaign and the Media

The Impact of New Media on the Election

moderator: Henry Jenkins, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Ian Rowe, MTV
author: Marc Ambinder, The Atlantic
author: Cyrus Krohn, Republican National Comitee
published: July 29, 2013,   recorded: November 2008,   views: 1395

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New technology may have permanently changed U.S. politics and campaigning. These panelists, who have both observed and driven this change, attest to how truly transformative the 2008 presidential election turned out to be.

Four million more 18-29 year olds voted in 2008 than in 2004, says Ian Rowe, and nearly 70% of these voted for Obama. Rowe’s convinced this enormous leap in voters, and their sharp preference for one candidate, “is due to the use of new media.” He credits the Obama campaign’s extraordinary mastery of both message and delivery, citing a “centralized and decentralized process; the idea that everyone had part-ownership of the brand.” The campaign reached young people via cellphone, Twitter, and Facebook. He notes Obama’s website, FighttheSmears.com, which battled scurrilous internet rumors. Users “became an ally to preserve and protect his brand,” says Rowe. But none of this would have been effective if Obama had not purveyed such a “phenomenal and consistent message,” which involved drawing on his audience for ideas and direction. This represents “a new kind of governance about bringing you into the process.”

Marc Ambinder believes that the 2004 and 2008 campaigns were successful because “they both managed to use tried and tested old media marketing techniques and merge them with technology.” While lagging in resources and technique four years ago, the Democrats this time round were fueled by Obama’s massive $630 million war-chest. The end result was an email database of around 10 million people, which they put to use in social networks like Facebook. Ambinder also recalls a fascinating effort using old and new media in South Carolina, where the Obama campaign worried about gaining votes among older African- American women. Campaign staff recorded some of Michelle Obama’s speeches on the subject, and sent volunteers with DVDs and VHS tapes of her talks to beauty parlors. “Volunteers spent tens of thousands of hours…loosening resistance.” Then when polls opened, data warehouses on some of these voters allowed campaigners to determine who hadn’t yet voted, and target them with phone calls and offers of a ride.

GOP technology guru Cyrus Krohn finds the amount of information his party has on voters kind of scary. He describes how third party data mining groups helped the Republican National Committee match information from a voter file with a voter’s “public profile on a social network.” This proved a “goldmine” for targeting purposes. But “technology is a commodity,” says Krohn, and “it’s the cachet and persona of a candidate that will drive the use of it.” Krohn was “daunted by the amount of user-generated content…in support of Obama.” The piece of media that created the most buzz around McCain was the video “McCain Girls,” which turned out to be the product of the liberal Huffington Post. Such is the impact of technology that Krohn has found himself helping every RNC division think about how to deploy it. Anyone looking for campaign work should be proficient in C++ and Java, recommends Krohn.

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