Politics Is No Longer Local. It's Viral.

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.

"So you write about the Internet?"

In the nearly two years I was on the campaign trail, a few seasoned political reporters asked me some version of that question. Usually, the question ended up being a statement, expressed in a careful, almost parental, just-hang-in-there way: "So [pause], you write about the Internet [another pause]." Sometimes, it was asked with a dismissive, get-yourself-a-real-writing-job tone: "So you write about the Internet? What about the Internet?"

Whatever the tone, I often replied, "I don't write about the Internet. I write about people who are using the Internet."

I joined The Post's political team in February 2007, two days before my 26th birthday. I'd watched Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton announce that she was running for president via online video, just as former senator John Edwards had done a month earlier. "I'm not just starting a campaign, though, I'm beginning a conversation -- with you, with America," Clinton said. "So let the conversation begin."

Conversation? Online? With people? A week later, I wrote a one-page memo to the paper's top editors proposing a new area of coverage: the marriage of Internet and politics.

Though I majored in political science at San Francisco State University, I'm no political expert. I'd never seen more than 30 minutes, much less a full hour, of "Meet the Press," and I didn't recognize Joe Klein until he sat next to me at an airport terminal. (Klein, a.k.a. Anonymous. "Primary Colors." Travolta as Clinton. Got it.) I've always viewed politics from an outsider's perspective. And what I'd learned from watching and re-watching DVDs of "The West Wing" -- especially the last two seasons, centering around the race between Matt "Obama" Santos and Arnold "McCain" Vinick -- was that politics is about being in control and staying on message. Or at least, that's what the politics of the television age was about.

But the Web is an uncontrollable, freewheeling medium. The Internet is not TV. You don't just sit back and yell at the screen; you sit up and write back at the screen. And you can also sit back -- click, click, click, scroll, scroll, scroll -- and think for yourself.

Indeed, what was so striking about the longest presidential campaign in history was the impact that everyday people had on setting its round-the-clock narrative.

Remember Adam Brickley, the 21-year-old who created PalinForVP.blogspot.com in February 2007, long before anyone had heard of Gov. Sarah Palin?

A recent graduate of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Brickley said that he got the idea for the blog after scanning Facebook. Republicans on Facebook were creating groups imagining an ideal GOP ticket (Rudy Giuliani-Sam Brownback, for example). Predicting that Clinton would get the Democratic nomination, Brickley figured that the party needed a woman on the ticket (Kay Bailey Hutchinson? Olympia Snowe?) and eventually thought of the newly elected governor of Alaska. After reading more about Palin on Wikipedia, he started the blog. "It just kind of took off. In the beginning, it was just a few people reading it," Brickley told me on the phone just a few days after Sen. John McCain tapped the 44-year-old mother of five as his running mate. "But then more and more people read it. And it's not really the number of people who read your blog but the kind of people who read your blog. Word got around."

Or remember Phil de Vellis, the video wiz who created the first viral attack ad of the race, mashing up Apple's famous Ridley Scott-directed "1984" Super Bowl ad and portraying Clinton as an Orwellian Big Sister to Obama's bright new Mac?

That video was viewed about 400,000 times before it made it onto CNN and became an even bigger viral hit. Last spring, at de Vellis's Columbia Heights apartment, where he spent a few hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon editing the mash-up, de Vellis told me: "As an Obama supporter, I just wanted to put something out there. Look, most if not all of the talking heads on cable news didn't think Obama had a chance early on. It was all about Clinton -- how strong her machine was, how inevitable her nomination was. But online, you saw that more people were gravitating toward Obama."

For all the talk about how much the mainstream media were in the tank for Obama, that certainly wasn't the case in the first few months of the campaign. Nothing talks louder in politics than money. It wasn't until Obama started raising millions -- not just from deep-pocketed bundlers but also from low-and middle-class donors giving less than $100 -- that more reporters started paying attention. For most of the campaign, what dominated the political coverage were countless articles and TV segments on incessant polls, inside-baseball strategy and who's-up, who's-down horse-race stories.

The politics of the television age still flexed its muscles, no doubt, but not for too long.

While researching the history of the intersection of politics and the Internet, I hit the books. One was Joe Trippi's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything," which came out in 2004, after Trippi had orchestrated Dean's online-fueled campaign. Another was "Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy for the Internet Age," a collection of essays by some of the most perceptive thinkers in the online political sphere, including Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum.

But the book that I ended up underlining and highlighting most was called "The Assault on Reason," which came out in the spring of 2007, just as I was digging into my new beat. A critique of TV's influence on politics and a blueprint for the Internet's current and future impact on our civic life, it's written by former vice president Al Gore. "The Internet is perhaps the greatest source for reestablishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish," Gore wrote in the last chapter, titled "A Well-Connected Citizenry." "It is the most interactive medium in history and the one with the greatest potential for connecting individuals to one another and to a universe of knowledge."

In a phone interview last week, Gore said, "I still stand by those words." He laughed and recalled Obama's 37-minute speech on race following the wall-to-wall coverage of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's provocative homilies. While TV coverage consisted mostly of sound bites, replaying and replaying a 20-second or so clip of what Wright had said, "a true dialogue was happening online," Gore said, on YouTube and other social networking sites.

"What we're witnessing," Gore continued, "is the rebirth of our participatory democracy."

I couldn't agree more.


Jose Antonio Vargas is a Washington Post political reporter.

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