In 2004, Howard Dean powered his unlikely run at the Democratic nomination through meetups and nascent social media. In 2006, YouTube hosted the “Macaca moment” that derailed the Senate campaign of Virginia Republican George Allen. President Obama famously mobilized the masses in his 2008 run using Facebook, Twitter, and a highly coordinated online campaign.
In 2012, “new media” will hardly be new. Strategists on both sides have become much more sophisticated in all aspects of managing political messages in the digital age. These erstwhile novelties are now the minimum price of admission for a modern campaign. So will there be as much leverage in online politics in 2012 as there was in years past?
The answer depends on two main factors: how campaigns integrate technologies that are new (or newly mainstream) since the last election cycle, and how they improve the performance of existing channels.
The hottest innovations in the consumer space these days are tablets; mobile apps (especially for Android); high-quality streaming video-on-demand to the living room; and geolocation services like Foursquare.
In some ways, these are just extensions of pre-existing concepts. Do tablets really provide a fundamentally different experience for consuming digital media and social information than smartphones? In a political context, how are services like Hulu and Netflix more useful than YouTube for the distribution of video content -- especially in the crucial points of the campaign when most Americans will be trying to avoid, rather than seek out, political commercials?
Geolocation as a mainstream consumer technology is the only real headline news here, but it seems more like a top-down tool for managing the mobilization of activists and heat-mapping campaign activity than something to engage the grassroots. Is anyone that eager to win the “Mayor of Palinville” badge?
While it’s possible -- perhaps even likely -- that some clever campaign will find a way to make effective use of these new technologies, the more promising area of innovation is in making better use of existing social media, even as these tools continue to evolve in their capabilities and the way they are perceived by consumers.
Facebook and Twitter have already reached saturation level as platforms for political messaging. The tweets and status updates of top-tier candidates and “political celebrities” like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are routinely reported as news, and nearly all political operations have strategies for mobilizing their fans and followers.
The next step is direct monetization. President Obama’s reelection campaign has already spoken openly about the need to raise nearly a billion dollars for the 2012 contest. That would mean more than doubling the record-breaking sum they raised in 2008, including significant portions from online individual donors. Republicans may be in better shape now that the Supreme Court cleared the way for unlimited and unattributed corporate donations, but they will be exploring all avenues to cash in on the enthusiasm of Tea Party supporters.
The architects of Obama’s MyBO (the personalized version of the Obama for America site) have just rolled out Facebook integration, allowing direct interaction between Facebook users (and, significantly, communities) and the campaign. The goal is to target entire communities with micro-segmented appeals and facilitate a one-click donation from within the Facebook interface, rather than redirecting to a Web page.
Campaigns are likely to use the same approach with mobile social apps. Imagine a candidate speech that ends with a direct appeal to tweet or text a certain message or hashtag to make an automatic $5 donation, in the same way that emergency services are raising funds through social media for disaster relief. In these cases, the primary barriers are regulatory, not technological.
Despite these limitations, you can bet that some of the sharpest minds in the political arena are working round-the-clock to figure out how to gain any advantage from any emergent technologies. It has become more than clear that strategists can’t assume last year’s tactics will work in an era where every recent campaign has been transformed by the clever use of the latest new medium.
— Rob Salkowitz is the author of Young World Rising: How Youth Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up.