Digital dash to the White House: Views mean votes in the presidential video war

By Samuel Muston | The Independent  

THE INDEPENDENT - The appointment of Joe Rospars as digital director of Barack Obama's election campaign in 2008 helped to upend political campaigning in the US. For the first time, digital media was deemed important enough to be granted a seat at the right hand of the candidate. It was to be a separate tool, not just a monkey to the communication office's grinder.

By embracing the intangible and making cyberspace a frontier of both political persuasion and activation, the Democrats had opened another front in the electoral war. As television had been for JFK, online was for Obama: an untested weapon and one, perhaps more importantly, largely overlooked by his opponents.

Skip four years to late July 2012, and the seeds planted by Rospars are blooming: Obama's YouTube channel, which was established in 2006 when he was a Senator in Illinois, received its 200 millionth view. That total now stands at 227 million views, putting Obama 389th in the most-watched list on YouTube, a gratifying 18 places and some eight million views in front of the boyband One Direction. If 2008 was the birth of online campaigning, this year saw it reach the majority.

More than 500 candidates for office in the US are adding their own efforts to the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. And since the start of the year, the candidates have spent record amounts online. Obama has put $16.4m (£10m) into online ads (last year's total was an eighth of that, $2m). His competitor, Mitt Romney, has so far spent around $8m.

On the face of it, Romney has trailed Obama. Some of his numbers look considerably less favourable. His YouTube has had a mere 20 million views, but the comparison is to some extent facile, because it fails to take into account the unseen activity, what that goes on behind the screens. Online campaigning is about much more beyond video, which can often preach to the converted. Digital campaigning has to be about getting people out of the armchair and helping their candidate.

"Campaigners are beginning to understand that online campaigning has exponential impact because it not only persuades people to go and physically vote but can also activate them to donate money, volunteer, or even just help spread the word using social media," says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, which looks at the intersection between technology and politics.

So far, since January 2011, Obama has pulled in $587m. Crucially, 53 percent of that has come from small donors – which is exactly the constituency a politician wants to capture and is the group that powered Obama to victory at the last election. Romney managed a respectable 22 per cent from small donors.

Obama (or his people, at least) took to the President's Twitter account this week to offer further stats. In August alone the campaign had raised $114m from more than a million donors, he said. "If you pitched in $5 or $10, it helped," he said. "97.77 per cent of donations in August were $250 or less, for an average of $58.31... 317,954 people who gave to the campaign in August were supporting the Obama organisation for the very first time."

To achieve this, both sides have their favoured technological aides-de-camp. Two companies have come to dominate the digital-campaigning landscape as the focus of campaigning has moved from the doorstep to the computer screen. For the republicans, it is Targeted Victory; for the Democrats, Blue State Digital.

While of different political hue, there are similarities between the two. Their staffs share one characteristic in particular: youth. "More often than not they are young and [see] technology as central to their world view. They tend to be people who self-identify as members of the internet public, who consider it essential to how they live there life," Rasiej says. But they are not hired guns. You have to believe in the cause to pull in the six-figure salaries.

The companies themselves were born in very different circumstances. Blue State Digital is the older, more established of the two. It was conceived during Vermont Governor Howard Dean's technologically innovative, but ultimately doomed, bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. "

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