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The future of campaigning

Dennis Nottebaum
6 November 2008

The Obama campaign has set new standards for politicians, strategic advisors and spin doctors around the globe. What aspects of his campaign will be appropriated abroad and shape the conduct of political competition in elections to come?

First, Obama's use of the Internet as a medium to create, organize and multiply support was unprecedented. By way of its interactive website, but also through other channels such as Facebook, Youtube, or Myspace, the Obama campaign reached and mobilized a huge number of (especially young) supporters not only in the US, but around the globe. The Obama phenomenon would not have been possible without the Internet. Neither would he have created a movement as wide, diverse and active as he has, nor would he have raised as much money from small donors. The importance of online campaigning is therefore one of the prevailing characteristics of this year's elections.

Second, the Obama campaign created a consistent narrative that they managed to follow all the way through the campaign. Why was that important? "Change" is a rather vague concept in itself, even in times where the American public is overwhelmingly of the opinion that the past eight years were not exactly glorious. However, what Obama managed was to turn the notion of change into a brand by repeating it over and over again. Political argument was subsumed by this guiding ethos, gained an aura of momentous legitimacy. Does anyone remember Hillary Clinton's slogan? Or John McCain's? Personally, I don't. And that is because they kept changing it over and over again while Barack Obama stuck to his. Obviously, Obama also benefitted from the political circumstances: the economic crisis added furter fuel to his call for change. What if there would have been a terrorist attack instead? Suddenly, McCain's image of the war hero and experienced leader may have sounded more convincing.

The third and last aspect has less to do with the art of campaigning itself, but resides with the media. We have seen a profound change in the way the media has covered this election process, and this again has to do with the Internet. In 2000, George W. Bush strongly benefitted from the help of conservative talk radio, whereas 2004 was characterized by smear campaigns that drew on the new prominence of 24-hour news networks. 2008 will be remembered as the final breakthrough of the blogosphere as a major outlet for political reporting. Never before have there been as many blogs and online journals covering the most diverse aspects of this campaign. When I watched the coverage of the election night on German TV, virtually all networks cited online sources and used them as tools for their broadcasting. The same with CNN, BBC and the others. Tiny online projects suddenly emerged as authorities in the market of news analysis. Or had anyone heard of fivethirtyeight.com before? This shift is going to help diversify and democratise political reporting.

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