washingtonpost.com
Election 2008: Online Efforts

Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Politics and Technology Reporter
Wednesday, August 20, 2008 12:00 PM

Washington Post politics and technology reporter Jose Antonio Vargas was online Wednesday, Aug. 20 at noon ET to discuss online efforts by Sen. John McCain's and Sen. Barack Obama's campaigns and by outside groups.

The transcript follows.

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Jose Antonio Vargas: Hi. Thanks for signing on. I've been covering the marriage of politics and technology for about 18 months now. Lots of innovations, of course, particularly when it comes to online videos and text-messaging. That's why we decided to focus heavily on those two aspects in the story.

Ask away.

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Washington: A great read, Vargas. This is a comprehensive piece. Was it hard to get them to talk?

Jose Antonio Vargas: You just called me Vargas? Who is this? Navtej?

Thanks. :-)

That was the goal, to be comprehensive. We've written about Obama's Internet team in bits and pieces -- whenever they post a YouTube video that gets thousands of hits, online fundraising numbers, etc. What I wanted to capture was the entire operation itself. More important, what kind of lessons can we learn about our "media ecology" -- as Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Forum describes it -- has changed.

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Northern Virginia: I am 46 and love the Obama site. I use almost all the features except for sponsoring a fundraiser. It's not just for twentysomethings. I worry, though, about the loyal Democratic Party activists who skew a bit older and sometimes have minimal computer skills. I have run into a lot of them. They typically think they know how to "go online" and are proud of it, but they get stuck after a screen or two. Imagine how they feel then. It's really a shame, as many older Democrats supported Hillary Clinton and are being good sports even to try my.barackobama in the first place.

Has the Obama Web team considered drastically improving its online help and user info -- for example with a "getting started" demo or simple animated tutorial; "directions" that could be printed out and referred to; beefed-up (but very elementary) technical FAQs about the site features; a "Dummies" book or manual that could be handed out at local offices or the convention; or even an online self-help user forum on how to use the site? Or perhaps weekly "getting started online" beginner seminars at local Obama or Democratic offices, or again at the convention? Outreach truly is needed across this digital divide.

Jose Antonio Vargas: I'm glad you mentioned the digital divide. I actually wrote a piece on that, way back during the first YouTube debate in Charleston, S.C.

Here's the link.

And you make a really good point -- I'll pass that along to the Obama team. But I have to say that some people I've interviewed (fortysomethings, fiftysomethings, etc.) have been surprised with how easily they've been able to go online and get involved and participate, whether with Sen. McCain's, Sen. Obama's or Sen. Clinton's campaign.

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Kensington, Md.: Speaking of online efforts, I noticed that obamabiden.com still is owned by some fellow in San Francisco. Are you surprised that the O-team hasn't bought up the obama(x).com sites for all of the top veep contenders? Or might they still be in negotiations with the squatter at this late date? Just wondering what you make of it.

Jose Antonio Vargas: This is exactly the reason why -- the moment Obama's team buys URLs for top veep contenders, then you'll see a flood of blog posts/articles/hyperventilations over it!

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Miami: I was fascinated by the specific uses of social media mentioned in your piece, like the group in South Carolina texting "SC" back to Obama headquarters. Would you give some other innovative examples of the Obama campaign's use of text messaging, social networking or Web videos that didn't make your piece?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Thanks for the message.

I was actually at that stadium, in Columbia, SC.., when Jeremy Bird, Obama's SC state director, took the stage and asked everyone to get their phones out and text SC to Obama's short code. It surprised me -- you see that in concerts, like Alicia Keys, etc., and I wondered how effective it would be. That's why I wanted Scott Goodstein, Obama's texting guru, to tell me what happened in South Carolina.

I've gotten a few e-mails now wondering why McCain doesn't text.

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Anonymous: Just saw that McCain has taken a five point lead. What's happening? I'll have ulcers before the end of this. What else can we do? McCain can not win. How can I help?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I've often said that there are really two campaigns going on -- the one we watch on the cable news, all the talk about the tightening polls, the latest tit-for-tat of the minute, etc., and the campaign going on online, where passionate McCain and Obama supporter (of passionate anti-McCain or anti-Obama voters) are networking and organizing.

What struck me in researching this article was how well online organization and offline, on-the-ground activities are married when it comes to Obama. Of course I wondered if the same is happening on JohnMcCain.com. But though the blog on McCain's site is robust and active, the kind of online organizing on his site is nothing like what's happening on BarackObama.com.

Which of course leads all of us to wonder -- what will this mean come Nov. 4? If the race is close, as polls suggest, will excitement and buzz and enthusiasm online carry offline?

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skinsfanmoyo : Vargas goes to the site of the site and gives lots of details of his visit and a photographer takes pictures, but Vargas does not visit or photo-shoot the McCain site but gives a few words from McCain's Web person. How does the author know what is going on at the McCain Web site if he does not go there and see for himself, as he did with Obama? Is that because they are more cool?

The Web is being used by many more people, on their own dime, than the paid Obama operation. Money does not Internet domination make; fortunately it is generally a people-powered versus dollar-powered operation. Ask his ISP Web host about how one of his sites was shut down because it was the origin of bad Internet behavior. Where is that information in this article? Too anti-Obama? Tell the truth and nothing but the truth?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Thanks for the message.

I've e-mailed and spoken on the phone with Michael Palmer, McCain's eCampaign director several times. I've asked to visit their headquarters a few times and visit with the eCampaign folks -- no luck, so far. I was able to get some details on background, though. There are four staffers in the eCampaign dept, in addition to employees from Campaign Solutions, an outsider vendor and longtime McCain vendor. They don't text. When asked on e-mail how many videographers they have, a McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, wrote me back: "We're not going to get into any more of this process stuff. We're focused on winning the election. Thanks much."

And you make a very good point -- having a well-oiled online operation is not enough. You need supporters to visit the site, make donations and become engaged. Unlike any other candidate in this cycle, Obama has been successful in doing this -- especially when you look at the online fundraising dollars.

(I must say, however, that Rep. Ron Paul made it farther than anyone else imagined -- farther than, say, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani -- because of his online support.)

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AsperGirl: You forgot to mention the online irregulars -- the cultlike fanatical groups like those at Daily Kos, who are self-appointed Internet vigilantes. These Daily Kos self-appointed vigilantes are the "irregulars" who prowl the Internet, e.g. media outlets' forums such as that of The Washington Post, posing as real readers/posters. They cyberbully, cyberstalk and try to humiliate real readers/posters to the news forum and discussion sites who argue issues in a way that is outside Obama's talking points or opposes their candidate. They also cut-and-paste hate speech and gross attacks against Obama's rivals, which they call "spreading the (negative) memes." They disrupt, distort and dominate the discussions of real readers, and on some days probably fewer than one in 20 posts on The Washington Post is from real readers, because of their use of fake and multiple logins posing as multiple users.

The irregular corps of Internet forum bloggers and cyberbullies from Daily Kos and like centers of Obama's juvenile activist hacker/supporters is a phenomenon that is widely observed but never commented on by the media. Yet it is they who drive the irrational flaming on liberal blogs this year. Someone really should write an article about them. Their cyberbullying, cyberstalking and slander of real readers/posters whom they attack also can get them sued. It's not that hard to break their codes and processes and figure out what they do and where they come from.

Jose Antonio Vargas: Just posting this -- think it's interesting.

I don't think it's fair, however, to single out Daily Kos.

What you call "online irregulars" are everywhere, on left- and right-leaning blogs.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Do you know if the presidential campaigns read the blogs for tips, criticism, gossip, etc.? I can't get the regular press columnists and online session types (too self-important, too self-absorbed) to take any questions about nonconventional vice presidential picks -- perhaps the bloggers can get their attention. Examples for Obama -- Roy Romer, David Boren; for McCain - Lynn Swann. Thanks much.

Jose Antonio Vargas: Good question.

Yes, they read blogs; folks like Sam Graham-Felsen, Obama's blogger-in-chief, as well as other bloggers in Obama's team scour the blogosphere. And Joe Rospars, the new media director, used to be a blogger himself.

Kate Albright-Hanna, the video director, told me she regularly read the comments on YouTube videos.

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Concord, N.H.: I admire the political machine Obama has constructed, but I am very put off by the constant exhortations for money. It seems like everyone is pouring ridiculous amounts of money into all of the campaigns -- am I really that odd for not wanting to give a thin dime to a politician?

Jose Antonio Vargas: A very interesting point that I just wanted to post.

Online efforts should be more than just about money.

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jcmccraw: I was disappointed in the opening line of this article, which refers to the ubiquitous sandals and iPods in the online campaign office. While I appreciate the allusion to a young, "hip" and liberal microcosm of society that is supporting Obama, this also gives a kitschy (not to mention biased) view of the people working with and supporting Obama's campaign. This is not the way to appeal to Obama's politically and socially diverse fans -- especially those Americans who are still on the fence. In this sense, it does a disservice to the campaign. I hope, for the sake of the informative nature of Vargas's article following its first paragraph, that only the minority tuned out after his opening statement.

Jose Antonio Vargas: Thanks for the message.

You make a fair point, and I wrestled a bit on how to start the story and paint the scene. I went with that "lede" -- the first graf -- for a couple of reasons. It paints a picture, and I thought the quote I heard from a sneezing staffer -- "Whew! I think I'm allergic to hope!" -- showed, I thought, a self-awareness about the place that I had to catch. I wasn't necessarily going for the hip, young thing -- Scott Goodstein, who's 34, doesn't think of himself as hip or young. He's just into technology.

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Northern Virginia: A few months ago the Obama site featured an online cookbook of family recipes by Obama supporters who had met on my.barackobama and created and edited a book-length manuscript. Short recipe introductions sometimes were funny, sometimes poignant, and explained why the writers were supporting Obama. There were dishes ranging from German, Irish and English to many Asian and South Asian cuisines (I can't remember if there was soul food) -- and lots of pointedly anti-elitist Jell-O mold, Spam and macaroni and cheese offerings.

Whatever happened to this? It was such a great product of my.barackobama, expressed the spirit of the Obama campaign and spoke for a wide range of (primarily) women, often from older generations. Has the campaign considered publishing or reproducing such works, whether online in a "book shelf" area or in print at the convention? I had nothing to do with it, but was charmed at the brief glimpse I got. Or perhaps, like everything else in the world, it fell victim to a copyright issue?

washingtonpost.com: The Obama Campaign Family Cookbook (barackobama.com)

Jose Antonio Vargas: I didn't know this. I'll pass it along.

Thanks for the message.

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Boston: How is Obama's "Fight the Smears" Web site doing? Also, would it have been better for them to just highlight independent sites like snopes.com instead of making their own that people will assume is biased? (For Aspergirl, all you have to do is look at the individual Snopes pages for McCain and Obama to see which side is making up more scurrilous stories.)

Jose Antonio Vargas: I'll be focusing on FightTheSmears.com on a later article.

And, yes, you bring up a good point -- why not just highlight an independent site?

But this has been a strategy of the Obama team. And it's deliberate, I think. All roads lead to BarackObama.com. They run their own social networking site, their own texting program, their own fight-the-smears campaign. We'll see how it pays off.

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claritygraph: Interesting article. TV was the big technological change 46 years ago when Kennedy won the election; will the Internet do the same for Obama's campaign?

Jose Antonio Vargas: I hear this a lot from Democratic sources -- Obama has mastered the Internet, the same way JFK and Reagan before him mastered television.

TV and the Web, of course, are two very different medium. They expect different things from their viewers.

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Des Moines, Iowa: Very interesting article. Can McCain catch up online?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Hey Des Moines! (I spent my Christmas and New Year's in Des Moines and I'll never forget it!)

Can McCain catch-up? Remember, by the way, that McCain was a Web pioneer in the 1999-2000 cycle. He raised millions online, elicited a lot of passion, had an innovative Web site. We'll see what happens in the next three months.

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Jose Antonio Vargas: Thanks for your time. Please pass along any story ideas/comments/suggestions.

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