First published November 6, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Even as a Canadian, I was amazed by what happened the night of Nov. 4. History was made in many, many different ways. And for that reason, I’m interrupting my series on Search and Branding, just for this week.
Obviously, every journalist and pundit will be falling over themselves talking about the historic implications of this election. Democrats and Republicans alike were gushing and seemed a little speechless about the implications of Barack Obama in the White House. I have my own feelings but that’s not what this column is about. For me, this election was fundamentally historic for another reason. It changed forever the fabric of democracy in America.
Three years ago, I sat in a hotel conference room somewhere (it might even have been Chicago) and heard Dana Todd, then the President of SEMPO, say that search would be a very important factor in the next election. I smiled to myself, because I had been watching the somewhat ham-fisted use of online tactics in the election that had just ended. I thought to myself, “Why do these candidates fail to understand the fundamental importance of online? Don’t they understand that this provides an amazing new platform for democracy? How could they be so clueless?” The one candidate that did seem to grasp it was Howard Dean, but unfortunately, Dean’s campaign had other challenges that eventually overcame his online momentum.
I mused further: “What would happen if you took the lessons learned from the Dean campaign and fielded a candidate with a campaign that fully ‘got’ the power of virtual connection?” My guess would be that it would be incredibly effective. Yet I had no idea how earthshakingly important online strategies would prove to be.
Unknown to me, two people — Jascha Franklin-Hodge and Joe Rospars, the architects of the Dean online machine and co-founders of Blue State Digital — were already making plans for 2008. The candidate? A junior senator from Illinois who had just rocked the Democratic National Convention with a stirring speech: Barack Obama.
I watched the entire process unfold, and at each step, I was impressed with the grasp of online momentum, its nuances and social connections. With Franklin-Hodge and Rospars as architects, and with the help of a very Net-savvy staff, Obama’s campaign built an online momentum that shocked Clinton’s handlers in the primaries and eventually rolled over McCain as well.
Yes, there were many factors that led to success, not the least of which is the candidate himself, but I can’t help thinking that this campaign managed to crystallize it in a brilliant way online. Obama navigated the currents and eddies of online buzz masterfully, creating mini-campaigns of intense interest and passion, mobilizing votes and raising money — lots and lots and lots of money. He (with his campaign architects) understood the fundamental connection of online: reaching many, hearing from many, one at a time. It was a campaign launched and won by we, the people.
On November 19th, 1863, another politician from Illinois gave what was intended to be a few impromptu remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. Lincoln finished that speech with these words: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
On Tuesday night, there was a new birth of democracy, the culmination of an election that used a new technology to bridge millions of gaps between Washington and the people, to erase decades of division, estrangement and alienation. Yes, it was a brilliant campaign tactic, but it was more than that. It was an understanding that people needed to reconnect with their President and to have their voices heard. It was true democracy. No matter what your political affiliation and your feelings about Obama the man, you have to feel hopeful that somebody in the White House finally “gets” the Internet and its awesome power to connect and effect change.