This paper explores Barack Obama's social media strategy in the 2008 presidential campaign. In the paper I argue that lessons learned from the campaign are being translated by the Obama team into a mechanism for governance today
Solop, The Keys To The White House, Isa Conference
The Keys to the White House:
Race for the Presidency of the United States
Frederic I. Solop
Professor & Chair
Department of Political Science
PO Box 15036
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011
Phone: +1 (928) 523‐3135
Prepared for presentation at the 21st World Congress of Political Science, Santiago, Chile,
July 12 – July 16, 2009.
Democratic political systems are built upon a foundation of ongoing interactions between
citizens and policy‐makers. The nature and structure of these interactions are locked into
an essential relationship with prevailing technology. Technology shapes what is possible
and ultimately creates new possibilities by way of shaping mechanisms of political
participation, and defining how political campaigns and governance are played out in
society. This paper focuses on the role of technology in shaping the outcome of the most
recent (2008) presidential election contest in the United States. As the first president to be
born in the Vietnam era, Barack Obama was comfortable introducing new technologies into
his campaign for the presidency. Technology played a critical role in helping Obama
distribute his message to a wide audience, organize volunteers throughout the nation, and
raise unprecedented amounts of money. Obama is now building upon lessons learned n the
presidential campaign and integrating technology into a comprehensive model of
Politics and technology are inextricably bound together. Whether campaigning for office,
organizing constituencies, or governing, strategic options are a function of dominant tools
for connecting political actors and exchanging information (Postman 1993, Bimber 2003).
When Johannes Guttenberg invented the first printing press in 1440, he could not have
predicted the impact this new technology would have on major institutions such as
religion, the arts, science, and politics (Postman 1993). The introduction of the Guttenberg
press meant that information‐‐ideas, arguments, stories‐‐could be mass‐produced and
distributed to a large audience. At the same time that communications became more
distant and removed from the producer of information, ideas took on a broader scope
bringing larger groups into a common understanding of perceptions and reality. Nation
states soon realized the potential of written information to maintain order and help build
the modern nation state. Mass literacy campaigns were put in place to allow citizens access
to this new form of expression (Ginsberg, 1987).
At a later time, the telegraph enabled information to be communicated instantaneously
over long distances (Postman, 1992). When the telegraph technology reached mass
distribution in the United States in the mid 1800’s, the transmission of news was reduced
from days to seconds. Whereas information may have taken four days, at a minimum, to
travel from coast‐to‐coast in the United States, it was now distributed instantaneously. This
helped to forge a nation shaped by a common understanding of the world around us.
President Franklin Roosevelt became famous for conducting “Fireside Chats” on the radio
starting in 1933. Radio allowed Roosevelt to carry on personal, informal communications
with the nation. For the first time, large numbers of people could listen to the voice of the
president and be both inspired and reassured by his message. Presidential campaigning
was changed forever in 1960 when candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon engaged in
a series of televised debate, ushering in the era of television‐oriented politics. Interestingly,
those listening to the debates on the radio thought Richard Nixon had won, while those
watching the debates on TV thought Kennedy exhibited the better performance. This
experience demonstrated not only how technology shapes the delivery of a message, but
how technology shapes perception of those messages as well.
The newest technology to redefine how democratic nations communicate is the Internet.
Much has already been written about how the World Wide Web and the Internet have
influenced politics (Davis 1999, Wilhem 2000. Solop 2001, Bimber and Davis 2003,
Kersting and Baldersheim 2004, Owen and Davis 2008). This discussion has focused largely
on the impact of the Internet on balloting, on candidate fundraising, and the broader
impact of the Internet on political participation. Contemporary researchers agree that the
Internet has ushered in a new era of political communications and governance.
As we delve further into this topic, we see that the Internet is significantly different from
technologies of the past. Previous communication technologies have had a static structure.
The printing press was essentially the same in 1840 as it was in 1940, or 2009 for that
matter. Radio involved the centralized broadcasting of a message across airwaves. The
waves are received using radios and listened to by people residing, working, or recreating
within a relatively close distance. Radio technology has been relatively static between 1930
and 2009. The same can be said about television technology. A television signal is
broadcast from a centralized source and people with a receiver capture these signals and
view the broadcasts.
The same cannot be said of Internet technology. The structure of information delivery on
the Internet has fundamentally changed in just the last few years. When discussing the
Internet, it is valuable to distinguish between two types of Internet technologies: Web 1.0
and Web 2.0. Much like radio and television, Web 1.0 involves a one‐way flow of
information from a central information source to a broad number of information
consumers. People post information to a website, for example, and Internet users read the
The Internet is different today. Web 2.0 involves a fundamental shift in information flow.
We now have a 2‐way flow of information. Information consumers are now information
producers in their own right. Regular people, you and me, our neighbors and coworkers
now read information posted on websites and comment or post their own ideas for others
to comment. Over time, a collective understanding of knowledge and wisdom emerges.
Information is democratized in the Web 2.0 world. It goes without saying that Web 2.0 has
fundamentally changed the nature of political expression and political campaigning at the
end of the first decade of the 21st century. Whereas political expression using Web 1.0
technology is similar to an arrow launched toward a bulls eye target, expression in the Web
2.0 world features the back and forth volley characteristic of ping pong.
Web 2.0 technology lies behind the success
of social media. The term ‘social media’
encompasses the tools that easily allow for
information sharing using the Internet.
Beyond simply allowing users to post
information, these tools allow users to
network with one another and form
personal relationships. The tools facilitate
formation of communities brought together
by similar interests and perspectives of the
world. Social media tools include sites that
allow for blogging and microblogging, photo
sharing, video sharing, social networking,
publishing, podcasting, and participation in
virtual worlds. Many, many social media
sites for available for personal and business use.
Presidential campaigns in the United States began accessing Web 1.0 technology in 1996
when candidates Bill Clinton and George Bush first constructed campaign websites. These
early campaign websites were more similar to campaign brochures, though in a different
medium. Candidates identified their strengths, posted issue papers, and maybe posted
photographs to create a personal look and feel to the site. The power of web technology
began to be realized when John McCain, 2000 Republican candidate for president, made
history raising $2.7 million over the Internet within 72 hours of winning the New
Hampshire presidential primary (Price, 2004). The McCain example demonstrated that
campaign websites could play a significant role in candidate fundraising. Campaign website
readers were willing to not simply be passive recipients of centrally posted information,
they might absorb the provided information and translate that information into an actual
The world of presidential politics and the Internet in the United States changed
significantly in 2004 with the candidacy of Howard Dean, an independently minded
Democratic Party candidate. Dean hired Joe Trippi as campaign manager. One of Trippi’s
first activities was to officially begin promoting the Dean candidacy using a little know
web‐based service called “MeetUp.com” (Trippi, 2004). Meetup.com is an international site
that facilitates real‐time meetings between people who share a common interest. Today (in
2009), more than 63,000 meetup groups have been organized. The Dean campaign
encouraged followers to join the site and then ‘meet up’ in local communities around the
nation. Meetup.com captured the imagination of an independently minded, highly
motivated, young constituency. Volunteer meetups became places for Dean followers to
engage other Dean followers and to organize local activities that help spread information
about Dean’s candidacy.
The nature of presidential campaigns in the United States was already undergoing change
when Web 2.0 technology was introduced in the mid‐2000’s. Some may date the origin of
Web 2.0 to the late 1990’s with the introduction of ‘Weblogs,’ later known as blogs. By
January 1999, 23 weblogs were in existence (Information Week 2009). The idea of weblogs
(later known simply as ‘blogs’) took off like wildfire. According to Information Week
(2009), by July 2004, over 3 million weblogs existed. At the same time that blogging was
becoming popular, other social media sites began to appear and be embraced by large
numbers of Internet users. By mid‐2000’s that major social media sites became common:
MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Flickr1 (2004), Digg2 (2004). O’Reilly and Associates
labeled these social media tools “Web 2.0” when the organization sponsored a Web 2.0
conference in October 2004. Today, more than 100 million blogs are being actively
maintained and hundreds of social media sites are in existence.
III. Barack Obama’s Social Media Strategy
There is no question that Barack Obama feels comfortable using technology and
understands the value of technology for shaping future events. As reported by Stelter
(2007), the blackberry‐wielding candidate had this to say about the topic:
“One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is
that real change comes from the bottom up, and there’s no more powerful
tool for grass‐roots organizing than the Internet.”
Candidate Obama turned to one of the most successful social media figures in the world to
develop his social media strategy. That figure was Chris Hughes, one of the founders of
Facebook. Facebook is arguably the most successful social media tool in existence today,
with more than 200 million active users, 100 million of whom log in every day (Singer
2009). A population of this size elevates Facebook into essentially being the fifth largest
nation in the world, behind the United States and ahead of Brazil.3 Histories of Facebook,
often credit Mark Zuckerberg, a 23 year old student at Harvard University with developing
and promoting the concept of a social media site allowing for interaction among college
students (Phillips, 2007). But the full story discusses how Zuckerberg worked with his two
Harvard roommates to develop the site. Given the almost overnight success of Facebook, It
is not surprising that Barack Obama, a technology‐savvy candidate for President of the
United States, turned to Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, to direct his online
social media campaign.
Hughes began working with the Obama campaign in February 2007 (Stelter 2007). The
centerpiece of Hughes’ work was to create an online social networking community, much
like had emerged on Facebook. He did this by taking charge of a website titled
“mybarackobama.com” or “myBO” for short (Stelter 2007). MyBO allowed visitors to create
personal profiles, create blogs, share information with their neighbors, organize and
advertise local events, and solicit donations. By July 2008, the site recorded more than
900,000 subscribers. Stelter (2007) writes that the site was particularly useful during the
1 <Flickr.com> Photo archiving and distribution site.
2 <Digg.com> News site allowing users to share information and preferences.
3 Thank you Jason Baer for framing Facebook’s success in these terms.
primary election season allowing Obama to raise more than 2 million donations of $200 or
less. By the time the campaign was over, according to Ellen McGirt, more than 2 million
profiles were created on MyBO. In addition, volunteers “planned 200,000 offline events,
formed 35,000 groups, posted 400,000 blogs, and raised $30 million on 70,000 personal
fund‐raising pages” (McGirt 2009).
MyBO was an unqualified success in soliciting donations, organizing volunteers and
promoting the candidacy of Barack Obama. Understanding the power of different social
media tools, Obama and Hughes were not content to stop there. They created a huge
presence on other social media sites and employed other Internet tools to distribute the
Obama message. Like MyBO, these sites helped distribute the Obama message unfiltered by
the mainstream media and created an image of Obama as a young, tech‐savvy candidate.
a. Social Networking: Facebook/Myspace
Facebook is the premier social networking site using the Web today. Individuals open
accounts, interact with ‘friends’ that they authorize to see their information, post blogs,
share personal information and photos, and distribute information about upcoming events.
Like Facebook, MySpace promotes a similar set of social networking tools, but appeals to a
younger demographic. While Facebook has 200 million active accounts as of May 2009,
MySpace has just over 56 million active accounts (Compete.com 2009a)
To be sure, Obama’s opponent, John McCain, also tried promoting his message on similar
social media sites. But, Obama had a better grasp on how to use the technology and met
more success doing so. By the end of the election (November 2009), Obama had 844,927
MySpace friends compared to McCain's 219,404. Just between November 3rd and
November 4th (election day), Obama gained over 10,000 new friends, while McCain only
gained about 964. (ReadWriteWeb)
Given the sheer numbers of people using Facebook, this site is a different animal altogether.
Today, Barack Obama has more than 6.4 million supporters accessing his Facebook site.
Interestingly, however, he did not put too much energy into maintaining this site before the
presidential election. Scanning through messages that have been posted to Barack Obama’s
Facebook site displays a series of posts in May 2007. Obama than posted one message to
the site in October 2008 and another on election eve: November 4, 2008. The next message
to be posted is dated February 24, 2009. Obama, or an Obama staff person, has added
information to his site at regular intervals since. Many of the posts today are coming from
the Democrat’s Organizing for America site, showing the convergence of digital
technologies into a coordinated strategy for promoting a message. Continued user of MyBO
reflects widespread awareness of the potential of the technology to communicate with and
mobilize broad constituencies over time
Twitter is a recent newcomer to the world of social media. Also known as “microblogging,”
twitter allows users to communicate messages of up to 140 characters in length. Unlike
Facebook where users ask to be friends with another user and must be authorized to
access information, twitter users ‘follow’ information posted by other twitter users. No
permission is needed to follow someone’s twitter feed. Twitter users follow whichever
accounts they personally select to follow. Twitter users do not authorize others to see their
Despite only being 3 years old, twitter is widely accepted to be the fastest growing social
media tool available today. Almost 20 million people now have twitter accounts
(Compete.com 2009b). Many of these users have established twitter accounts in the last
few months. At the time of the November election, only about 3.5 million twitter accounts
were in existence (Compete.com 2009b)
Twitter usage has taken off as twitter applications have become available for mobile
devices such as the iPhone and Blackberry devices. People can now author ‘tweets’ on the
run. Twitter users have been the first to report disasters such as an airplane landing in the
Hudson River and a plane missing the Schiphol airport runway, crashing outside of
Amsterdam. Mobile twitter users actively shared information and coordinated strategy in
the recent Moldovia revolution and Iran uprising. But, perhaps the greatest impetus to the
growth of twitter use in the United States comes from celebrity use of twitter. Twitter use
spiked after Ophrah Winfrey, a popular talk show host in the United States, signed up for an
account and wrote her first tweet while on air.
Today, twitter is being used for a variety of purposes, including individuals discussing news
and events germane to their lives, news outlets generating current event feeds, companies
advertising products, entrepreneurs promoting themselves and their services, and
organizations distributing information.
Obama’s first ‘tweet’ was posted on April 29, 2007. This tweet was a message about ending
the war in Iraq. Initially Obama used twitter largely to announce where campaign
appearances were taking place. As primary wins began mounting, Obama announced his
successes on twitter. In April 2008, Obama posted a YouTube video of an address he made
to the Communications Workers of America. By July, Obama was regularly posting YouTube
videos on this twitter site, once again giving testament to the convergence of the
technology. One medium references posts to other mediums with the goal of multiplying
traffic to all sites.
In total, Obama posted 260 tweets
during the presidential campaign.
The final tweet said “We just made
history. All of this happened
because you gave your time, talent
and passion. All of this happened
because of you. Thanks.” Obama has
continued to use his twitter site after
the campaign, though some time
passed before Obama began
regularly posting information on twitter. As of this writing, there are 32 post‐campaign
tweets on Obama’s twitter site. Few came out immediately after the campaign. Today,
Obama tweets regularly about policy issues. Obama has now shifted to accessing this
technology for purposes of
speaking to different
governing the nation.
By Election Day, Obama
had 118,107 followers on
twitter (twitter counter
2009), gaining 2,865
followers between the 3rd
and 4th of November
(Election Day). In all, John
McCain only had 4,942
followers by Election Day.
Today, Barack Obama’s
twitter site shows 1.6
million followers. This
makes his site one of the
most popular sites on twitter today.4
YouTube is a popular video archiving site visited by 76 million people a month
(Compete.com 2009c). One scholar characterized Obama’s presence on YouTube as nothing
less than “overwhelming” (Frantzich 2009). By June of 2008, five months before the
general election, John McCain had placed 208 videos on YouTube and those videos had
been viewed 3.7 million times (Vargas 2008a). At the same moment, Obama had posted
1,000 videos on YouTube and his videos were visited 53.4 million times (Vargas 2008a).
It did not take long for Obama to understand that YouTube opened a direct channel of
communication with the voting public. Obama could post videos of campaign appearances
and major policy speeches and directly deliver his message to large numbers of people. His
message didn’t have to be filtered through the media or vetted by talking heads. When
controversy surrounding anti‐American comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright,
Barack Obama’s pastor, hit the front pages in March 2008, Obama responded on March 18
with a major policy speech addressing race relations in the United States. The Obama
campaign posted this video to YouTube and more than 4 million views of this speech were
recorded (Vargas 2008b).
Today, in the post‐campaign era, Obama has 1,852 videos posted on YouTube.5 Twenty of
these videos have been viewed more than 1 million times. Candidate Barack Obama’s
October 30, 2007 appearance on the Ellen Degeneres Show is the most viewed video. As of
this writing, this video has been viewed more than 7.6 million times. All 1852 videos
combined have been viewed 21.8 million times.
d. Text Messaging
Although text messaging is a cellular‐based technology, rather than an Internet technology,
candidates for public office have come to realize that text messaging is a relatively
inexpensive medium for quickly distributing a crafted message. Obama launched a mobile
text messaging strategy early on in his presidential campaign. Throughout the campaign,
Obama invited volunteers and supporters to share their cellular phone numbers with the
campaign in order to receive text messages. According to one journalist, Obama collected
hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of phone numbers that receive text messages
(Manjoo 2008). The greatest achievement occurred in candidate Obama’s pledge to first
inform supporters by text about his selection of a vice‐presidential running mate (Stetler
4 After Obama, the most popular twitter sites today include Ophrah Winfrey‐‐1.65 million
followers; Brittany Spears‐‐2.1 million, Ellen Degeneres‐‐2.2 million; and Ashton Kutchner‐
2008b). Obama did announce his VP running mate first to this list, giving him direct access,
once again, to a large voter base. Nielsen estimates that the VP announcement was texted to
2.9 million people (McCarthy 2008). The Obama campaign continued to use this list of
numbers to register people to vote and to encourage people to go to the polls and cast a
E‐mail is a Web 1.0 technology that previous candidates and political organizations used to
keep in touch with their supporters. The use of Web 2.0 tools did not replace or supplant e‐
mail or make e‐mail inconsequential. On the contrary, Barack Obama actively sought out e‐
mail addresses of his supporters in order to regularly send campaign updates and
fundraising appeals. By the end of the campaign, Obama had collected 13 million e‐mail
addresses and this became the pool from which he raised an unprecedented $745 million
III. From Candidate to President
Web‐based technologies played a central role in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
These technologies allowed candidate Obama the freedom to directly deliver a crafted
message to voters and nonvoters alike. It allowed him the ability to connect with a huge
donor base and shape a message of being a young, modern leader in touch with the future
of the nation. Barack Obama did not abandon this perspective once he won election to the
office of President of the United States. He is now employing these same technologies in his
effort to govern the nation.
Obama’s campaign website <mybarackobama.com> is still online, only now it is known as
“Organizing for America” and it is funded and maintained by the Democratic National
Committee. The goal of Organizing for America is to “enlist community organizers around
the country to support local candidates, lobby for the president’s agenda and remain
connected with supporters from the campaign” (Elliott 2009). The site connects users to
the Democratic Party and to local events. Users are encouraged to log in and share their
profiles with other users. Fundraising still plays an important role in what the site offers to
users. Moreover, it links users to Barack Obama’s other social media sites on Facebook,
MySpace, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Twitter, Eventful, LinkedIn, BlackPlanet, Faithbase, Eons,
Glee, MiGente, MyBatanga, AsianAve, and DNC Partybuilder. Many of these social media
sites are popular with specific constituencies such as African Americans, Latinos, Asians,
Gays and Lesbians, and Faith‐based groups.
Almost in parallel with <mybarackobama.com>, the Obama White House is very actively
engaged in social media efforts today. The official White House website can be found at
<www.whitehouse.gov>. This site delivers current information about legislation, position
papers, personal information about key administration figures, blog information about
what the president is doing, information about government agencies, and contact
information. The site also links to the White House presence on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr,
MySpace, YouTube, Vimeo, and iTunes. USA Today commented that the White House thinks
of this presence as “WhiteHouse 2.0.” (Cooper, 2009).
In the book Downsizing Democracy, Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg (2002)
lament the loss of a democratic system that requires public officials to actively mobilize
constituencies in order to maintain access to power. Democracy in the United States, they
note, moves according to its own momentum. The public has almost become superfluous to
what is required to govern a nation. Barack Obama is a throwback, in Crenson and
Ginsberg’s world, to a time when public officials took constituent organizing seriously. In
this sense, Obama remains the consummate organizer and the Internet remains a key
building block in this program.
Involvement in Web 2.0 media has exploded in recent years. The technology encourages
people to feel part of broader communities. When people interact using social media tools,
they reveal something about themselves and remain sensitive to the lives of others. Social
media tools help people build networks and to feel part of a community larger than
themselves. Barack Obama understood this during the campaign and understands this
The Obama campaign used social media and other technological tools successfully to win
control of the White House. The tools formed a cornerstone of the effort to deliver an
unfiltered message to broad publics at a very low cost. The tools also encouraged Obama
supporters to stay connected to the candidate and to participate in a broader community of
supporters. While it would be naïve to say that Obama won election to office solely because
of his social media presence, his social media involvement was part of a broader, winning
equation. One area where his website and technology presence benefited him
tremendously was in fundraising. His on line activities led to his ability to raise significant
amounts of money from large numbers of donors each making relatively small
contributions. The next most important success to emerge from the Obama campaign’s use
of technology is the image created of Obama as a young, technologically sophisticated
leader committed to connecting individual voters to a broader movement of change.
As candidate Obama now transitions into being President Obama, there is an
understanding that the same tools that were so helpful in the campaign, are important for a
strategy of governance. These social media tools are being used by President Obama to
deliver his policy messages, to rally support for his initiatives, and to continue connecting
people to broader communities of change. In Crenson and Ginsberg’s worldview, President
Obama takes seriously the importance of organizing and mobilizing constituents now that
the election is over. This orientation has become a central to his governing strategy. It is an
investment in today and it is an investment in tomorrow. Today, the electorate is
dominated by “digital immigrants,” people who grew up in an analog world and learned to
access digital tools later in life (Prensky 2001). By the time the nation moves into the next
presidential election and President Obama begins campaigning for reelection, the
electorate will include a greater proportion of “digital natives,” people who grew up in the
digital world and are native to accessing and understanding the power of these tools. As
this transition occurs, President Obama and the Democratic Party are in position to solidify
their foothold within the electorate and to continue controlling the reins of government for
some time to come.
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