Internet first undisputed winner of 2008 US vote

 

ANALYSIS:Barack Obama's skilful use of the internet as a tool for political campaigning has lessons for politicians here disconnected from the electorate, writes Mick Fealty

EVEN BEFORE the polls opened in the US yesterday, millionaire blogger Arianna Huffington had declared the internet the undisputed winner of the 2008 US election. And it's not just those YouTube videos of the candidates' speeches and political ads which have fired up talking points across the world, but rather the weight and timeliness of the information online making it a compelling tool for commentators and voters alike.

As Huffington notes, it may have finally laid to rest "the clichéd putdown about the blogosphere" that "it's just people spouting opinions, but this election has shown it's also about expertise and information - collated, graphed, spread-sheeted, distilled and cross-tabbed".

It's what Phil Noble of Politics Online calls, "Voter Generated Content".

There is no Huffington Post nor a fivethirtyeight.com in Ireland as yet. And indeed, there are vast differences in the way politics is conducted here and there. The European model is mostly unitary, the US is pluralist.

Presidential elections and referendums aside, highly centralised parties control the selection of candidates. And to a large extent the parties in Ireland are not clearly defined by the policy positions they adopt.

It took the Lisbon referendum to expose just how weak those party systems have become when challenged by a small, intelligent, light-footed, and highly networked campaign. The pressure group Libertas - satirised in this paper by Newton Emerson as "four blokes and a website" - exerted extraordinary disruptive power within the referendum debate by using the facilities available to it online.

Crucially the campaign manager, David Cochrane, was able to use his well-established debate site, Politics.ie, as a testing pad for the campaign. And since the site acts as a clearing house for press releases from all political parties, it also allowed Libertas early access to its rivals' statements. This in turn enabled them to prepare contra lines and get them into the hands of journalists, which were often taken in preference to the original statements.

It's a classic example of using smart, quick internet conversation to shortcircuit the 24-hour news cycle. In the process Libertas ran every single mainstream party in the Dáil ragged, through what the US writer Tom Watson calls an "investment in conversations".

In the case of Libertas these conversations were international as well as national. It piqued the interest and sustained attention of large Eurosceptic papers like the Daily Mailand the Daily Telegraphin the UK. Online, the conversations it sparked came back to Ireland, looking for a place to register their mark. Conor Pope, for instance, picked up over 500 comments on his largely non-political Irish Timesblog from No vote sympathisers across Europe simply on the day of the count.

The primary weakness of mainstream Irish politics in that campaign lay in its utter inability to engage its citizens directly on a given controversial subject. But it's part of a wider malaise that affects more than the allegedly "soulless Tiger".

As Prof Stephen Coleman has noted "in the wider sphere of state-citizen relations, non- participation has become the public's default position". It's a long-term decline and reflects a deterioration in social values right across the West.

In the Ireland of early independence, the Catholic Church was the primary source of its social capital. In large part they, rather than the State, provided the country's social infrastructure, schools, hospitals, even social welfare. It's no coincidence that all political parties took their campaigns directly to the church doors.

With the church in decline, parties have resiled to using family and wider political kinship networks to get out the vote. These are strong enough for elections in the normal run of things, but have proved incredibly weak when faced with the external challenge of a constitutional referendum.

So what does the hugely successful Obama campaign have to tell Irish politicians, some of whom are quaking at the thought of a possible rerun of Lisbon?

In a briefing paper published this week by the London think tank the Centre for Policy Studies, Liam Maxwell argues that what Obama has managed most successfully is not the huge amount of money he's raised to pay for TV ad time, but the way he built a quite traditional campaign using online tools.

"At bottom it's really just a very well- executed but traditional campaign that uses the internet to get the central message out consistently every time.

''It feels like the mass market politics redolent of 1950s' Britain; the internet has taken this campaign back to first principles and it has been successful beyond their wildest expectations."

The campaign grew out of and drew from the lessons of Howard Dean's primary campaign in 2004. Building on a strong network of pro-Democratic party bloggers, they floated a highly centralised and controlled system that allowed to do what Maxwell calls "franchising the message".

Using low or no-cost means of the internet, Obama was able to build significant levels of support in areas of the country where Democrats had traditionally been weak.

Local campaign messages were simple, but checked rigorously from the centre for branding and coherence with the wider campaign. Feedback was quick, and campaign material was easy to order and deploy.

As Watson notes: "Small but well-connected can be more effective than huge and widely disbursed."

Like Tony Blair before him, if Obama has won, as many expect, he may quickly find his tumultuous campaign has raised unrealistic expectation such that he can only disappoint with his administration.

But in the process, he may also have rediscovered a viable means for political parties to use the internet to reconnect with those tight local communities where all elections (and referendums) are ultimately won and lost.

• Mick Fealty is is a journalist and the founding editor of the- blog Slugger O'Toole. He blogs for the Guardianand the Daily Telegraphand is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Governance at Queen's University Belfast