WATCHING IT CLICK

Politics Is No Longer Local. It's Viral.

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By Jose Antonio Vargas
Sunday, December 28, 2008

Around this time last year, I was driving through the snow-covered flatlands of the Hawkeye State, headed to a bowling alley where a dozen college students from the University of Northern Iowa were holding court at lanes 27 and 28. All members of a group called UNI Students for Barack Obama, they were dressed from head to toe in Obama gear. This was their last gathering before Jan. 3, the day of the Iowa caucuses, scheduled smack in the middle of their winter break.

As talk turned to their plans for caucus day, it also inevitably turned to the Internet.

It was on Facebook, after all, that the group had been born. Brandon Neil, a 21-year-old junior, had created it on Feb. 12, 2007, the day Obama announced that he was running for president.

It was through news clips posted on YouTube -- and through Obama's YouTube channel, which lists more than 1,800 videos -- that the group learned about the Illinois senator's policies and positions.

And it was mostly on the Internet, in one of those ubiquitous, inescapable Web ads -- the campaign spent $8 million on online advertising -- that they heard about Obama's text-messaging program. "I only get texts from my friends," Andy Green, a 20-year-old sophomore, told me. "Let me correct that: I only get texts from my friends and from Obama."

Looking back, I realize that it was on that Thursday night that a new political reality was cemented in my head. In the past, we've thought of politics as something over there -- isolated, separate from our daily lives, as if on a stage upon which journalists, consultants, pollsters and candidates spun and dictated and acted out the process. Now, because of technology in general and the Internet in particular, politics has become something tangible. Politics is right here. You touch it; it's in your laptop and on your cellphone. You control it, by forwarding an e-mail about a candidate, donating money or creating a group. Politics is personal. Politics is viral. Politics is individual.

And we're just getting started.

Obama's unprecedented online success guarantees that there's not a single campaign in 2012, Democratic or Republican, that won't place the Web at the core of its operation. The floodgates are open. This doesn't mean just hiring Web developers, bloggers, videographers -- the works. It also means using the Internet to invite people into the process, giving them something to work for, offering them a stake in victory or defeat. More than any other medium in our history, the Web is by the people, for the people. Starting with Howard Dean, continuing with Obama and stretching out into the future, this new dynamic will transform the way campaigns are run -- and, beyond that, the way the winning candidate governs. Fundamentally, all of this is redefining our relationship with our politics.

There were so many people on Obama's Internet team -- 90, says deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand -- that they were integrated into every part of the operation: communications and fundraising, yes, but also field work and organizing. The results surprised even Joe Rospars, who headed the team. A million people signed up to get Obama's text messages. More than 13 million are on his e-mail list. He raised a half a billion dollars online from 3 million individual donors, including supporters such as Linnie Frank Bailey, a 52-year-old mother of two from Riverside, Calif. In June 2007, I met Bailey on Eons.com (a sort of Facebook for baby boomers) after she gave $10 online to Obama -- her first-ever political contribution. She gave a total of $120.40, mostly in $10 increments.

But this is about more than just $10 donations or a candidate or a political party.

"In this Internet era, it's not enough to run a campaign; you need to lead a movement," Mindy Finn, a Republican online political operative, told me less than three days after the election. "That's what Obama did." Finn, 27, worked on President Bush's eCampaign team in 2004 and supervised former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's Web strategy. She worries that, unlike its Democratic counterpart, the Republican establishment hasn't fully grasped the ways the Web is revolutionizing politics. "If you look at their site," she said of the Obama campaign, "their online videos, their online ads, everything they did, it wasn't about 'me, myself and I.' It was about 'we' and 'us.' "

It was, in essence, about you.


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