President-elect Barack Obama‘s top asset in pushing his agenda will not be his Cabinet secretaries or aides, but rather his online network.
Obama’s political e-mail list tops 13 million names, a digital force that the incoming White House can tap to push for his legislation, tamp down critics or bolster popular support. It’s also a way for Obama to reach into every state, every city, and every neighborhood.
A study released Tuesday found that a quarter of Obama voters said they would continue to work online to support the new administration. The nonpartisan Pew Internet and American Life Project also found 62 percent of Obama’s voters say they would ask others to support Obama’s policies.
Welcome to the Democrats’ new permanent campaign, one planned online and executed on Main Street.
If it works the way Obama’s top lieutenants plan, the White House would marshal hundreds of thousands of phone calls within hours if it looked as if the president-elect were losing a policy battle. With the click of a keyboard, Obama’s aides could ask supporters to flood the phone lines of Congress, making it untenable to ignore the clamor.
That, at least, is the idea.
Obama’s unmatched database gives his incoming administration a clear advantage over its Republican rivals, who have seen decades of datamining overcome in the matter of months. GOP leaders, though, insist they are not deterred.
“I’m impressed with what Obama did, but did they do anything innovative? No,” said Cyrus Krohn, the Republican National Committee’s online director. “They did things creatively.”
During past election cycles, campaign Web sites were little more than digital versions of their campaign pamphlets. But during the last few elections, campaign strategists have turned to the Internet as a way to reach more voters — typically, the uninvolved or youth — and their donations. Now, Obama’s team is turning that strategy into governance.
Howard Dean‘s primary campaign in 2004 brought together massive first-time online support and donors, but that did not translate to real-world votes. Similarly, John Edwards tried to mobilize his supporters in the name of national service ahead of his second presidential campaign; those single-issue voters were not there, however, when Activist Edwards became Candidate Edwards.
Obama, though, has been the most successful so far. Obama’s online supporters raised some $500 million for him, created 2 million online profiles at MyBarackObama.com and used his database to make phone calls during the campaign’s final days.
According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, 59 percent of all voters took part in the campaign online, whether it was sending e-mail, reading political blogs or researching candidates. Obama clearly had the advantage.
The Pew survey asked 2,254 adults about their Internet usage and politics from Nov. 20 to Dec. 4. The margin of error in the overall sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points. Among the 1,591 Internet users, the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
It’s been a careful dance between Obama and his supporters. His aides have avoided bulk e-mail and have tailored each message to its intended audience. For instance, Latinos and Hispanics who supported Obama received an e-mail announcing Linda Sanchez would be a co-chairman of Obama’s inauguration committee.
It’s the only way to break through bulk e-mails that flood voters’ inboxes, consultants say.
“I think we’ve seen them think critically about every single e-mail that they send,” said Tracy Russo, a Democratic consultant who worked with Dean’s and Edwards’ online campaigns.
For decades, politicians have sought ways to harness public sentiment to outflank troublesome opponents, news organizations and rival interest groups. Obama’s vast network can be a powerful weapon if he can control it, or a dangerous and unpredictable force if he cannot.
Liberal groups in recent weeks have joined the plan. MoveOn in recent weeks sent an e-mail to some of its 4.2 million supporters asking them to get involved, for example.
If Obama and his allies play this right, they could send phone lines crashing within minutes of a declared protest. Similarly, the instant communication of the Internet and cellular phone text messages could end it just by typing one word: “Stop.”
That power gives Obama’s online advisers a potentially bigger role than many of his Cabinet picks and major hires in pushing through an agenda. A Cabinet secretary stumping for a new bill has been rendered less powerful than a million e-mails crashing the Capitol; a visit to the Hill from top aides is unmatched to online petitions that clog legislative offices.
Since the election, 27 percent of wired Obama voters have visited Obama’s Web site to discuss the transition, according to Pew. Even 10 percent of those who supported Republican nominee John McCain have visited the transition Web site, change.gov.
The RNC, however, is not ceding the Internet.
Engineers and political hands have collaborated to identify 40 million GOP voters online, using commercial databases and their internal voter files.
“It doesn’t take a lot to inspire movement and community online,” said Krohn, the RNC’s top Internet operative. “The notion that we can’t catch up, I don’t buy that premise because change happens so quickly on the Internet.”