The Campaign That Never Quite Happened...

Next week, I will be moderating an event hosted by the MIT Communications Forum and the Center for Future Civic Media which will reflect back on the role of digital media during the current Presidential campaigns. Here are the details:

The campaign & the media, 2

Thursday, Nov. 13, 2008

5-7 p.m.

Bartos Theater


The Obama campaign's extensive deployment of digital media, especially its tech-savvy outreach to the young, was widely reported before the election. Some predicted that this digital advantage would make a decisive difference. Did it? And more broadly, what role did the Internet play in the election? How has it changed presidential politics? What are the future implications of the impact of new media on journalism and on American society? These and other questions will be addressed by our speakers.


Marc Ambinder is an associate editor at The Atlantic and a contributing editor to both the Hotline and National Journal. He blogs at

Cyrus Krohn is director of the Republican National Committee's eCampaign Division. He joined the RNC following two years at Yahoo! as director of content production and election strategy. Previously, he was Slate's first employee and then publisher while the webzine was owned by Microsoft.

Ian V. Rowe oversees MTV's on-air, online and off-air pro-social campaigns including the 2008 Choose or Lose campaign in which a team of citizen journalists submit weekly campaign reports online and via mobile technologies.

If you live in Boston, you should join us for the event. If not, you should keep an eye out for the webcasts which follow quickly after any MIT Communications Forum. You can check out the video of an earlier Communications Forum event focused on the election here.

As I've been prepping for this event, I've found myself reflecting back on some of the landmark examples of the digital campaign season. Every four years, we see enormous innovation in the deployment of digital media to connect candidates to voters. I've been documenting some of these examples of civic uses of media here in the blog throughout the year. Historically, the two periods of time where the most intense amount of media change occurs is during wars (see the emergence of light weight portable cameras during WWII and its subsequent impact on documentary and news production) and during campaigns. Yet, for some largely self-serving reason, we always hear pundits after the fact proclaim that "new media really didn't make that much difference" and insist that this was not the year when new media replaced old media at the center of our political process. I am sure we will hear similar comments by the end of this week no matter what the outcome of the election.

Certainly I'd argue against the either-or logic which sees new media gaining power and influence only at the expense of old media. For example, we might point to the ways that digital downloads and spreadable media insured that more Americans got to see the Katie Couric-Sarah Palin interview or for that matter, the Tina Fey Saturday Night Live spoofs of Palin. (As I've been speaking to older audiences in recent weeks, I've been fascinated to see how many over-50-year-olds had downloaded the Saturday Night Live sketches -- given our stereotype that seniors are not the ones watching television on-line and not the intended market for late night political comedy.) One can make the case that old and new media worked in mutually reinforcing ways throughout the campaign -- each directing attention to the other and insuring that any meaningful bit of content was seen by the maximum number of voters.

Yet, looking backwards, scanning through the "elephant graveyard" which is the web, we can also see lost opportunities. In the era of television, political advertisements appear, often targeted to a specific market, and then disappear again, with few of them leaving much explicit trace on the culture. But what begins life on the web tends to linger there and we can thus go back and revisit earlier steps in the political process.

I recently watched with some degree of morbid fascination the winners of Moveon's "Obama in 30 Seconds" DIY video contest. This was to have been a stellar example of how participatory culture met participatory democracy. Four years ago, Moveon had encouraged average Americans to put their talent to the task of generating an attack video which powerfully summed up the ills that would come of re-electing W. At the time, I questioned what is being said about civic engagement that they wanted all of us to enter into the messiest part of the political campaigns -- the attack ads. This time around, the organization reversed lens and adopted a much more idealistic goal: asking people to share their vision for why Obama should be elected president.

Here are some of the guidelines from the competition

Senator Obama says his campaign is about "a new kind of politics--a politics without partisan bickering and smear tactics." In keeping with that message, we're looking for positive ads about Barack Obama, not attack ads about others.

Obama was being proclaimed the "post-partisan" candidate and he was speaking often about a "purple America" strategy which would escape the impasse of a "Red America/Blue America." The Obama campaign saw this approach as key to their 50 states strategy and essential if they were to attract independent and moderate Republican voters for the fall campaign. If the election goes the way it has currently been projected, we will see considerable evidence that the Democrats were able to broaden their base. Yet, the idealism of these early advertisements seems quaint given the brutal campaign season we have just gone through.

We've heard so much about "game-changing" moments during the campaign season. Few of them changed the rules of the game, in the way envisioned by this spot; most of them simply shifted who was ahead and by how much in a campaign which was still understood by the news very much as a horse race. Here, young Barrack transforms a playground which pits the reds against the blues into a celebration where everyone joins hands. The spot uses childhood play to envision games without losers and winners, games which value everyone's participation.

Many of the videos accepted Obama's rhetoric about change coming from the bottom up, change being created through collective action by "we the people." The candidate is not the focus of these grassroot videos; the public is, with many different metaphors adopted to signify the potentials for collective action.

This spot interestingly deploys the PC/MAC advertisements as a template for discussing the relations between the Democrats and the Republicans. There are many examples of such parodies in this election cycle which sum up the ideological divides between the parties. But this one is interesting in its refusal to play that game and it's insistence that there are no red and blue states.

Both McCain and Obama entered the election season with commitments to their supporters to change the language of American politics, to "reach across the aisle" and embrace ideas from the other party. Yet, along the way, that rhetoric has broken down. McCain claims that Obama brought this on by refusing to join him in a weekly series of townhall debates across the country. Obama claims that McCain brought this on by adopting a negative "attack ad" approach which has even been questioned by Karl Rove.

What does it say about our current political process that even candidates who have every reason to adopt a more idealistic approach are seemingly incapable of maintaining that approach through a closely contested election? And what happens now as one of these guys has to form an administration which will govern the country in a time of national crisis?

I thought this flash from the past might provide us all some food for thought.