On the Web, Obama Is the Clear Winner

He is miles ahead of Hillary Clinton when it comes to online organizing and fundraising. But does that translate into votes?

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has another place where she needs to catch up: the Web. Long before Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) began his impressive winning streak in the Democratic primaries, he was trouncing his opponents in their online efforts. Clinton's wins on Mar. 4 in Ohio and Texas may have staved off for now Obama's march to the candidacy. But he still has more than triple the number of supporters on social networks MySpace (NWS) and Facebook, according to techPresident, a nonpartisan blog that covers the 2008 candidates' Web presence. His YouTube (GOOG) videos, with more than 24 million plays a day in March, grab nearly three times more daily views than Clinton's own.

Perhaps most importantly, Obama's fundraising is outpacing Clinton's efforts, thanks largely to online donations. In January Obama raised $36 million, with about 80% coming from online (BusinessWeek.com, 1/17/08). Clinton raised $35 million in the same period, but didn't break out the online component. Pundits project Obama's yet-to-be released February figures will beat the $35 million Clinton raised in February, of which $30 million came from online, according to Peter Daou, the Clinton campaign’s Internet director.

Obama Campaign: Early Adopters

It's clear that this digital advantage is paying dividends. In prior Presidential elections the Web served as little more than another channel for candidates to broadcast their positions and collect donations. This year, however, social networking sites and new Web tools are enabling candidates to mobilize large groups to take action online, on the phone, and on the streets. "The tools are more powerful and there are more of them now," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "This is a more robust environment than ever before."

Obama's campaign decided early on that the Web needed to play an instrumental role in helping to organize large numbers of supporters, particularly as a counter to the influence the Clintons already had within the Democratic Party's inner circle, including with key delegates. "If we were going to do this and be successful it had to be from the bottom up," says Joe Rospars, director of new media for the Obama campaign. Rospars is the founding partner of the Washington (D.C.)-based Internet strategy firm, Blue State Digital, and worked on the Howard Dean campaign in 2004.

Obama has multiple teams involved in his online effort. There's a technology team that handles infrastructure and another that manages his new-media efforts, such as the design of his Web site and the tools provided to its users. He has a video team that shoots his speeches and interactions on the campaign trail and posts them to YouTube and Obama's blog, which is written by campaign members.

Rallying the Social Networks

There is also a person who manages the thousands of regional, demographic, and issue-oriented social networks on My.BarackObama.com, where users can start their own blogs about his campaign, organize regional events, and raise funds (BusinessWeek.com, 6/18/08). Another person manages the pro-Obama groups on Facebook and MySpace—more than 970,000 people have signed up between the two sites. "The campaign itself has tried to tap into the power of social networks but equally as striking is the way his supporters have self-organized and taken the initiative to support him," says Rainie.

Obama is himself actively engaged in the social networks. Before Super Tuesday he solicited opinions on business social network site LinkedIn about how the next President could help small businesses and entrepreneurs thrive. He received nearly 1,500 responses in a week, says Kay Luo, LinkedIn's director of corporate communications, who helped organize his campaigns efforts on the site. "Lower the burden of federal regulation, and simplify the tax code so American small business owners don't have to face the hidden tax of preparing our taxes," wrote Allen Fuller, a managing partner at a technology, strategy, and marketing firm, in response to the question.

Later, a LinkedIn poll showed more than 50% of Democrats on the site said they supported Obama vs. Clinton's 36%. "The Obama campaign has learned how to navigate the new political media ecology better than anyone in the 2008 election," says Andrew Rasiej, co-founder of techPresident.

Jeremy Snyder, a 23-year-old Portland (Ore.) resident, says he would not have become so active in the campaign were it not for pro-Obama groups on Facebook and My.BarackObama.com. After signing up, he met people in his area who organized debate-watching parties at local pubs, encouraged each other to donate, and planned offline informational and fundraising events. Snyder has since raised money, made phone calls to voters in key primary states, and helped get the vote out at offline events. "What drew me in was how fast the online community was forming around him and that people so close to me [geographically] were getting involved," says Snyder. "The local social networking helps tie in how his policies are going to impact your area and make a difference for you."

Clinton Campaign: Reluctant Followers

Clinton was slower to embrace social networking. There have long been pro-Hillary groups on Facebook and MySpace, but some members of her campaign initially played down their significance. In November, Clinton advisers Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn told a reporter at Politico.com that while Clinton's supporters looked like caucus-goers, Obama's supporters looked like they were 18. The average age on Facebook is just under 23, with more than 80% of the audience of voting age, according to research firm comScore. More than half of MySpace users are age 35 and older.

"Penn said they look like Facebook," Grunwald was quoted as saying in a Nov. 11 Politico.com article. The quote was later repeated in a Jan. 5 Washington Post election blog. The comment prompted an anti-Clinton protest group on Facebook. The vehemence of groups on Facebook against a Clinton Presidency had made her team wary of social networking before, says Rasiej. He added that Clinton only recently has mentioned her Web site address in speeches.

One area where Clinton's campaign has moved aggressively is online video. In the summer, the campaign organized a song contest, culminating in a June release of a spoof video on YouTube of The Sopranos' season finale, starring the Clintons. She also regularly releases "Hillcasts," which include video of her positions on issues and behind-the-scenes footage from rallies. Clinton's Web site prominently features a section titled Hillary TV, which has video of her on the campaign trail.

"The Internet plays a central role to all campaigns now," says Peter Daou, Clinton's Internet Director, adding that online video was one of the most important developments. "We have run a robust Internet program."

Recently, Clinton supporters have stepped up social networking efforts. Darin Williams, a 34-year-old Morristown (N.J.) resident, spent last weekend making calls for Clinton to Rhode Island, Texas, and Ohio after being urged to help by supporters on Clinton's Facebook group. "People were saying we got to call, we got to call, we got to win these states," says Williams. "I felt motivated."

Online politicking, of course, only goes so far. And it's unclear whether Obama's use of social networking has helped him grab more primary voters, or whether he simply attracted a younger, more Web-savvy group. But in a bare-knuckle contest like the one Obama and Clinton now find themselves in, anything that can turn digital enthusiasm into real-world votes will be critical.

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