The economy is finally showing signs of improvement, and, as a result, the narrative arc of the 2012 presidential campaign is shifting. If, before, candidates struggled to share their vision for a revitalized economy, they are now struggling to get ahead of social and cultural issues, such as birth control and gay marriage — issues that were not yet on the national political agenda.
With this pivot from the economy to social issues, Internet activism is emerging as the most important factor in winning over key voters and spearheading a populist, insurgent movement on a national scale. Just as Internet activists were instrumental in transforming Occupy Wall Street into an international movement, they are also capable of mobilizing voters around a candidate and transforming that campaign into a national movement.
Movements are the physical, real-world manifestations of memes that travel across the Internet each day. They infect nearly everyone they encounter, encouraging people to share a message with others. While the lexicon of each movement can change — from tribes to followings to communities — the logic is the same: find passionate people with shared interests, unite them with an important mission, and empower them to spread the word far and wide using digital tools. Occupy Wall Street transcended physical space to become a global rallying cry, thanks in large part to the Internet: real-time updates via Twitter, livestreaming of events over the Internet and the self-organizing power of social networks like Facebook.
Each of the Republican frontrunners, with the possible exception of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has shown varying ability to start a truly national movement capable of galvanizing the hearts and minds of the electorate. During the early debates, it almost appeared as if each of the candidates — from Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) - was taking turns in leading Republicans forward. Now that the economy is receding, albeit slowly, into the rear-view mirror as the primary issue of the 2012 campaign, these candidates have a new opportunity to transform their campaigns, galvanized by something other than talk of budgets and jobs.
Three social issues — abortion, contraception and gay marriage — have shown the greatest potential to explode on a national scale. As a result, any comment — such as Rick Santorum's view of what makes one's sex life "special" — can become tinged with controversy and be used to light up the Internet with comments from “values voters.”
The recent flap over Susan G. Komen for the Cure and Planned Parenthood is perhaps the clearest sign yet how the Internet can blow up a single social cause and, within days, turn it into a trending topic across the nation. A decision by the Komen Foundation to stop funding of Planned Parenthood went viral almost instantly onine. What started online expanded offline, as the public relations crisis took on a life of its own, inflamed by popular protests.
After last fall’s Occupy protests and this winter’s anti-SOPA backlash, there is no longer any doubt that Internet activists know how to organize and mobilize. As we’ve seen, if there’s one thing the Internet does well, it’s giving digital bullhorns to the people with the loudest voices. By embracing sites like Causes.com and Change.org, organizers are able to assemble a critical mass of voices behind specific issues and then line up the necessary backing to transform a cause into a movement. A simple petition, such as the petition to drop Bank of America's debit card fees, can rouse 300,000 supporters and create the momentum for change. Marketers have known for years that cause-related marketing, in which for-profit brands bask in the halo effect of worthy not-for-profit causes, is the easiest way to invigorate consumer passions around normally bland brands. Political consultants should rip a page from the marketing playbook: sprinkle some cause-related pixie dust on your campaign and Voila! You have the makings of a movement.
Heading into this year, the conventional wisdom was that winning the 2012 campaign was going to hinge on the economy. That is increasingly no longer the case. Brace yourself, because the impact of social issues and social movements will be felt all the way to the White House. For Barack Obama, tiptoeing around social issues and benefiting from headwinds of an economic recovery may no longer be enough to win if a Republican candidate finally figures out how to use the Internet to inflame emotions, turn out the vote, and crank up donations on a national scale.
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