Obama campaign breaks new ground

Inboxes on computers and mobile phones filled up daily with messages from the Democratic presidential candidate.

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Even the loneliest of Barack Obama supporters would probably have felt loved over the past 21 months, as the inboxes on their computers and mobile phones filled up daily with messages from the Democratic presidential candidate. Hundreds of messages were sent, not just to party faithful, but also to those with even a passing association with the Illinois senator's campaign. This media blizzard was monitored by political watchers and the traditional press as the Obama campaign launched a blitzkrieg using new and traditional media.

Mr Obama's media campaign is being partly credited for his victory, with the president-elect not only ushering in a new era of politics but a new era of campaigning. His grasp of the importance of the internet helped his campaign in three crucial ways - securing a database of supporters to target with information and use as volunteers, getting his message to voters of all persuasions and raising money, which he in turn used to fund an advertising campaign on an unprecedented scale.

Mr Obama's Facebook page had more than 2.3 million supporters, four times as many as his rival, John McCain, and his YouTube videos have been watched 90 million times. His website, My.BarackObama.com has more than 1.5m registered users with links to his presence on social networking sites. After winning his party's nomination, Mr Obama credited social networking tools as a "big part" of his success. "One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organiser is that real change comes from the bottom up," he said in a statement. "And there's no more powerful tool for grass-roots organising than the internet."

The campaign used new media to target one of its main audiences, the young, web-savvy voter, bringing on board Chris Hughes, 24, one of the founders of Facebook. Mr Hughes built a community supporters could be part of, which also became a valuable source of fund-raising. With the click of a button supporters were able to donate any sum from US$15 to $2,300 (Dh55 to Dh8,450). The campaign also used text messages more than any other candidate, amassing millions of numbers that all received a message on Tuesday reminding them to vote.

Other new media resources used included virtual phone banks that let volunteers sign in online and receive a list of phone numbers and make calls from home, resulting in hundreds of thousands of calls to potential supporters. The campaign also launched Viva Obama, an online multimedia campaign targeting Hispanic voters. Several media commentators have said the 2004 campaign was the first internet election - Howard Dean, a candidate in that election, was touted for his use of the internet to raise funds - but this time the campaigns were better organised, hiring strategy experts and using staff to reach out to bloggers to help disseminate their message. Though both candidates used the internet in their campaigns, Mr Obama raised more than $600 million compared with Mr McCain's $217m.

Still, the Obama campaign spent the funds they raised on traditional media, especially television. In fact, advertising by candidates online did not come close to what they spent on traditional media. Mr Obama spent a record-shattering $293m on TV ads between Jan 2007 and the end of last month, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Mr McCain spent $132m. Both TV and the internet helped promote Mr Obama as a brand, using media saturation to push his message, a strategy devised by David Axelrod, a reporter turned media consultant who is responsible for most of the ads and the "Yes We Can" tagline.

The internet also helped the campaign get its message out to the press: According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, 65 per cent of reports favoured the president-elect compared to 31 per cent for Mr McCain. A survey by Editor & Publisher magazine, which chronicles the US newspaper industry, showed that Mr Obama received 281 endorsements from papers compared with 141 for Mr McCain. While studies show most US residents still get the majority of their campaign news from television, it is the internet that is developing as a key battleground.

The next step for Mr Obama, now that he is heading to the White House, is to see if he can maintain the connection with his supporters. bslabbert@thenational.ae