- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

New media - videos, text messaging, social networking and blogging - is revolutionizing the way candidates run campaigns, and helped presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama redefine the role of a supporter from someone who votes, and perhaps donates, to a virtual campaign employee.

Visitors to BarackObama.com, after creating an account with their e-mail address and ZIP code, can sign up to receive 25 phone numbers of supporters to call, complete with a detailed script.

“They gave their volunteers their contact list, which is a very innovative thing to do because all the conventional wisdom would be that you control your list because you don’t want it to get leaked to the other team,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at the University of Maryland.

The use of technology to advance a campaign is not a new concept - candidates have had Web sites for years - but it has morphed from an afterthought into a cornerstone.

“It’s one of the reasons we’re watching a guy who’s relatively inexperienced called Barack Obama actually on his way to becoming president,”said Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a liberal think tank focused on the use of technology in politics. “If you didn’t have these new tools, if you didn’t have the fundraising tools, the organizational tools or the new media tools, he would not be where he is today. No question about it.”

For example, while online video existed during the most recent 2004 presidential campaign, YouTube wasn’t even founded until 2005. Now, Mr. Obama’s speech on race relations has garnered more than 4.5 million views on the Google Inc.-owned site - and that’s only counting the number of times the entire 37-minute clip is played.

Presumptive Republican nominee Arizona Sen. John McCain has his own YouTube channel - as did former Democratic opponent New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton - and, despite some aesthetic differences, the functionality of the two campaigns’ official Web sites are virtually identical.

Visitors are greeted by pictures of each man looking confidentially out into the distance.The landing pages on both have an “Action Center” with links to social networking hubs, voter registration information, phone banking instructions and forms recruiting friends. Visitors to both are never more than two clicks away from making a donation.

But the successful use of technology in a campaign is more than just building a good Web site.

“The easiest part is to get the technology working, to get a Web site up or get a way to distribute money through the Web or use video,” Mr. Leyden said. “The most difficult thing I’ve found is changing the mindset of the candidates themselves, the campaign, the consultants that are working with the campaign. Until you actually make the mental shift you really are not going to be able to take advantage of the power of the tools.”

By all accounts, Mr. Obama appears to have made the mental shift. His staff includes New Media Director Joe Rospars, who was a strategist with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign - widely viewed as the first successful use of Internet organizing - and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who leads the campaign’s social networking efforts. The campaign has carefully woven Mr. Obama’s messages of “hope” and “change” into all aspects of his social media strategy.

For example, supporters can sign up for Obama Mobile by texting “Hope” to 62262.

The use of text messaging is especially critical, analysts say, as the general population abandons land line telephones, which are listed in the phone book, for cell phones that aren’t. It’s also more immediate than an e-mail.

“It’s the kind of thing where you can reach somebody in the movement, like turn on your TV and watch Obama on Larry King,” said Todd Zeigler of the Bivings Group, a District firm that led online strategy for former Republican candidate Fred Thompson. “As opposed to e-mail, which you might check once a day.”

Of course, the power of the Internet cuts both ways. Anyone can create their own Web site, blog or video that, if positive, gets linked to, and used by, the campaign.

If negative or controversial, such as the anti-Hillary YouTube spoof on Apple’s Orwellian 1980s commercial, campaign officials are quick to disassociate themselves.

In addition, Mr. Levine noted, the ability of video to spread on the Web like wildfire - as did the infamous clips of Mr. Obama’s pastor the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. - can erode a candidate’s control over his message, forcing him to speak about something he initially hoped to ignore.

There can be an uneasy tension between official campaign employees and independent supporters, as evinced by the dust-up over a MySpace page devoted to Mr. Obama that was started by a California resident named Joe Anthony.

The campaign initially collaborated with Mr. Anthony, giving him content and suggestions on improving the site. But eventually, as Mr. Obama added more and more “friends,” the workload increased and Mr. Anthony demanded compensation from the campaign, who demanded control of the page. The controversy, which was widely reported on the Web, ended with MySpace handing over the domain to the campaign.

While most analysts agree that Mr. Obama - the first modern candidate to spurn public funds after raising record-breaking amounts online - is winning the new media race, but there’s no reason that Republicans can’t catch up in the future, they said.

“The Republicans will clearly figure this out and make a transition,” Mr. Leyden said. “It’s just you can’t do it overnight. I think by the next cycle, 2012, this new way of doing politics will totally be done on both sides and then it will be less about the technical advantage that these things bring, it will be all about the strength of your idea.”

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