Citizen politics (III): Parties and Elections in the US

Notes from the workshop Citizen Politics: Are the New Media Reshaping Political Engagement? held in Barcelona, Spain, on May 28-30th, 2009. More notes on this event: citizen_politics_2009.

Youth, Online Engagement, and the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election
Bob Boynton, Caroline J. Tolbert and Allison Hamilton

With the Internet, political activity that was hidden — the voters’ — comes to the surface. Things that you could only know through surveys, now you can know it by looking at how many people looked at this or that video on YouTube.

And the information about the candidates has also boosted: from an average of 15 TV ads that lasted 30″ each, to 150 videos you could watch on YouTube.

And not only importation about what voters passively do, but also what actively do, their political action or engagement.

The “celebrities video” by McCain was viewed circa 2 million times, while the spoof/answer by Paris Hilton was seen by circa 7 million visitors. What happens to our understanding of politics when the unofficial beats that much the official message?

65% of visits to Obama videos in YouTubre came from the campaign official website. The top referrer to McCain’s videos in YouTube came from The Hufftington Post, who was against McCain.

The average of comments in the Obama site was 75 while in McCain’s it was 25%.

“Technology is a Commodity”. The Internet in the 2008 US Presidential Election
Cristian Vaccari

Research questions

  • Technological vs. social determinism: Is the Internet a channel of social-political dynamics, or can it be a driver too?
  • Post-bureaucratic political organizations (Bimber): How do campaigns resolve the trade-off between bottom-up spontaneity and top-down control?
  • Hypermedia camp and the managed citizen (Howard): Does data-driven selection and direction of volunteer engagement change the campaigns’ organizational incentives and practices?

Methodology: focus on the meso (organizational) level, 31 interviews to political consultants.

Two main conditions for an online campaign to work: content, based on the character of the candidate; and organization, based on committing to a volunteer-centered model rather tahn a marketing, command-and-control model.

Obama’s campaign worked more at the organizational level, building relationships, than at the marketing level, sending out messages and ideas.

There was no evidence found of a trade-off between organization and empowerment. But the grassroots revolution is still to be organized.

The Obama hybrid model: based on trust and authenticity, and with data assisted guidance.

From mass communication system to mass community system. From message control to message guidance. From a marketing paradigm to an organizing paradigm. From top-down vs. bottom-up to data-driven, targeted relationship management.

Research must be carpenter-driven rather than hammer-driven (Marshall Ganz).

New Media and Horizontal Politics in the Obama Campaign
Bruce Bimber

Obama’s was both the best-run new media (horizontal) campaign adn the best-run traditional (vertical) campaign in recent history. On the other hand, the election would likely have been won by the Democratic Party candidate in any case.

Why did Obama do better with new media than his opponents?

New media were used for two things: to mobilize; and to raise money that was spent in traditional media to dominate them. New media were used to contribute winning in the traditional media arena. McCain did not integrate both media.

Obama supporters used new media better in general, as measured by MySpace “friends”, Facebook supporters, etc.

Obama’s was really a much candidate-centered phenomenon.

Has Obama created a model for new-media campaigns by others?

Not really.

  • We do not know which new media technologies were more important and for what. Is there a core technology (the website, as Rachel Gibson states) or is there a swarm of tools? In general, parties tried everything that was at hand.
  • We’re not sure which organizational structures are best suited for which functions.
  • We do not know how public interest in a cause or campaign can be sustained over time.
  • We do not understand how the inflationary effects of new media on communication work. How much information is good and how much is saturating the audience? Will less be more?
  • Where are the limits of online organizing? How much face-to-face will it be necessary?

Some conclusions or what we know about horizontal politics and new media

  • Collapse of boundaries between news, political talk, campaigning, political action, gaming
  • Network effects are very large: network-style growth, social preferences, virality
  • Impetus toward hybrid organizational structures
  • Micro-targeting of communication works
  • Media appeal interacts with candidate/cause


Mayo Fuster: what kind of hybrid models?

Andrew Chadwick: We need detail on micro-targeting, specific usage of technolgies, etc. Indeed, we should be careful with soft data coming from interviewees that have professional interests in what they’re talking about.

Rachel Gibson: there is a real need of hub-like tools where people can go to get all the info they need, despite it is really spread around other platforms.

Ismael Peña-López: If new media is about community building, and there is a collapse of boundaries between political activities, then we should expect that campaigns work less than working on the long run, to build political communities instead of armies of volunteers for the elections. Would it be reasonable to think that the long primary election process in the Democratic party helped Obama to build this community, and that it was this community what mattered more than online campaigning? In other words: did online campaigning really mattered at all? Or was it the community building process during the whole primary election (+presidential election too) that mattered?

Jorge Salcedo: Do people really want to bring change in? To transform the system?

Bob Boynton: the long-tail has been able to reach beyond the physical boundaries. In terms of American politics, the long-tail means that you access more content, wherever… and, reciprocally, you can micro-target this audience.

Bruce Bimber: I agree that it would be much more interesting to see how Obama beat Hillary Clinton during the primary election than to see what happened during the presidential election.

Bruce Bimber: people might not be willing to bring in technological change, but cultural change.


Citizen Politics workshop (2009)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2009) “Citizen politics (III): Parties and Elections in the US” In ICTlogy, #68, May 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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