Team Obama trotted out its secret weapon for the fall campaign the other day. To quote an email message sent to supporters by deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, that weapon is “you.” Put another way, Obama is depending again – as he did in 2008 – on a vast army of volunteers bound by online social networks.
Cutter was encouraging recruits to join a “Truth Team” that would promote Obama’s record and rebut the charges already being launched by his Republican rivals. As she wrote: “We’ll provide resources for you to learn everything you need to know and tools to help you share it with undecided voters in your life.” That’s three “you’s” and one “your” in one sentence.
In explaining Team Obama’s strategy, spokesman Ben LaBolt told The Washington Post: “We believe that our grass-roots supporters persuading their networks to support the president will provide us with the decisive edge in November.”
Obama won for many reasons in 2008, but one of the biggest was his mastery of social media and the new ways that voters – particularly younger voters – were receiving information about politics. He and his advisers understood that the whole media environment was rapidly shifting from a vertical, top-down model to a horizontal, peer-to-peer model. The public relations company Edelman created a “trust barometer” and asked people which sources of information they would find most “credible.” No. 1 was “a person like yourself.”
Moreover, this new system was not about one-way communication; it was interactive. Information was exchanged, conversations conducted, communities created. New technologies – smartphones, tablets, BlackBerrys – meant that anyone who got a message could also send one. Every volunteer, every voter, was potentially a broadcaster, a publisher, an organizer.
As a result, citizens saw themselves and their roles differently. They went from passive recipients of information to active players in the political process. They acquired a sense of ownership in the campaign and a greater stake in its outcome. In an important sense, the real revolution of 2008 took place inside peoples’ heads.
The president’s comparative advantage will be far less this year. Rivals such as the tea party have studied his success and duplicated his approach. His ability to tap small donors online will be balanced out by wealthy contributors giving millions to unregulated super PACs. And at least some of the young people who worked their hearts out for Obama are dispirited by the persistent unemployment rates and rancorous partisanship that have marked the president’s first term.
“A little of the sex appeal is gone,” Heather Smith of Rock the Vote told Politico. “The butterflies in the stomach aren’t there.”
Still, social media outlets have grown enormously since November 2008 and will be more important than ever. The website Mashable recently reported these figures: Facebook has gone from 100 million users to 800 million; Twitter has grown from eight employees to more than 400; YouTube has more than tripled the hours of video posted every minute.
Since taking office, Obama has expanded his use of these tools and tactics. Last month, after his State of the Union address, he fielded questions posted on YouTube and Google+. He and his wife, Michelle, have active Twitter accounts. The White House has created a series called “West Wing Week” on Facebook that chronicles the president’s travels and statements. Supporters can sign up with Flickr to get a “photo of the day” sent to their inboxes.
Last December, as part of his campaign to extend the payroll tax cut, Obama asked supporters to go online and post descriptions of what they would do with $40 – the average amount they would lose in each paycheck if the cuts ended. This week he brought several of those storytellers to the White House and urged supporters to bombard Congress again with more Twitter messages using the hashtag #40dollars.
There’s a symbolic as well as a practical point here. Using social media is a way for the president, noticeably grayer and older than he was in 2008, to reinforce his “cool” quotient with younger voters. As Baylor professor Martin Medhurst told The Examiner: “The very fact that they’re doing it is sort of like sending a message to show that you’re on the cutting edge.”
Social media will not ensure Obama’s re-election. The workers who lack jobs will be far more important than the friends he has on Facebook. But in a close race, his secret weapon could make the difference next fall.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.