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.


  1. says:

    You pose the question: 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?

    I believe this says more about (citizens) the voters than the candidates, and it says more about the influence of voters on the process than anything about the process itself.

    Historically, in a nutshell, candidates were nominated, debated, hand shook and and were voted upon. Very few outside factors came in to play in the election process.

    In this last election, everyday citizens played a much larger role in the process. A hacker stole the email password of the GOP VP nominee, and established news sources such as the AP posted the personal emails of that candidate.

    Numerous photoshop opportunities were siezed upon for candidates of both sides, and videos, emails and the like bombarded inboxes around the country.

    One thing that I found to be the most interesting aspect is this: people report disliking “attack” ads that are put out by candidates. Yet, nearly every email I received in the election season from a friend was far more vicious, distasteful and outrageous than any ad put out by either candidate.

    What does it say about the process? It’s hard to stick to your ideals when the people you’re trying to reach appear to appreciate a lewd photoshop more than a good policy or a fair argument.

  2. Great panel! I hope it does get streamed online.

    These examples suggest to me the importance of audiences (as opposed to panels of experts) in selecting and propogating good memes, which is how these things operate, I think. I first saw it mentioned in terms of Bangladesh, but this campaign it seemed like most of these videos spread via away messages on gtalk. Reminds me of the old media studies debate about the “fierce competition for consumers attention” study in media studies — but perhaps recast to include the importance of people feeling motivated to *want* to share and propogate such media. Seems like the things that were successful (like yes we can) are deeply personal so that you feel the need to share with particular people whom you know would appreciate it… to the point where it is eventually picked up by ‘older’ media. In that case, we shouldn’t forget that the Obama campaign spotlighted it and most every news organization then also reported on it. Groups like are at a disadvantage in that if they broadcast /promote it, they run the risk of seeming partisan toward what has become regarded as a fringe group. Successful participatory media feels much more grassroots than this.

    To me, it’s all about the ecology of information this election. I watched with great attention (something I’m writing about now) how blog posts from some kid in Mississippi got picked up by Kos and then went to Olbermann (who reads Kos) and then hit the mainstream news the next day.

    I’m sensing the establishment of a maturing ecology of information… a growing network (at least for progressives) Like today’s cartoon — which in referencing Nate Silver, I think suggests that there are multiple overlapping strong and weak bonds forming. Nate’s recent post from Chicago really captured what I’ve been feeling about this… and how I don’t want it go go away. What’s most interesting to me is what will happen next…