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Electing New Media

Diana Owen

Associate professor of political science and American studies director Diana Owen says the Obama campaign’s communication style may be the template for future bids.

December 9, 2008 –Gone are the days of relying on TV and print ads to reach campaign audiences. This year’s presidential election opened the gates to a flood of new media options for the 2008 candidates. Whether contenders received record-breaking online contributions, announced their running mates via text messaging or created profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, most stepped up their digital outreach efforts to keep up with the increased mobilization of voters online. And youth voters led the way, says communications, culture and technology expert Diana Owen. The Blue & Gray sat down with the associate professor of political science and American studies director to discuss how young people ignited a new media whirlwind, why the Obama campaign’s communication style will be the template for future bids and how asking a president if he wears boxers or briefs became fair game.

Q.How did campaigns start using forms of new media to engage voters?
A.My research looks at how youth voting influences elections, the methodologies that are used to engage youth and how youth themselves have started to use new technologies to reach out to one another and part of the voting populous, more generally, to make a difference in campaigns.

The interesting period to track really is 1992 to the present. In 1992, we saw an up tick in youth voter turnout, partly as a result of new media. That was the time we considered new media, which is now old media, to be things like talk radio or entertainment television. Candidates were going on the Arsenio Hall Show, as Bill Clinton did, and other kinds of talk shows.

For young people, MTV became a place where they were reaching out to candidates to see if they would listen to their issues. As you probably remember, Bill Clinton famously went on MTV and was asked the ‘boxers or briefs’ question. But the young people also asked a lot of important questions about education, about the economy, about their future.

At the end of the primary campaigns then-President George H.W. Bush realized that he was falling behind because he had not reached out to young people through these particular venues. So, he half-heartedly went on MTV, but didn’t score the same kind of points as Clinton.

Once the Clinton-Gore ticket won in 1992, Al Gore went around during the Inaugural Balls to thank young people and MTV. ‘You’re the reason we’re in the White House,’ he said. So, young people were feeling really empowered in 1992.

By 1996, they were just disenchanted because they thought, in some ways, that they had been misled a little bit. While the candidates had promised them everything, once they got into the White House they really didn’t pay as much attention as they had hoped to their issues.

Despite that, in 2000, when we had the never-ending elections, people started to value their votes a little more. And by 2004 there were a lot of things that came together that brought more young people into the fold.

Q.What attracted young people?

A.First, there were a lot of youth voting organizations such as Rock the Vote and some really interesting organizations on the state level such as the Oregon Bus Project. That organization has a bus that travels around the state and sponsors peer-to-peer outreach that’s extremely effective. These groups were formed as a result of concerns about lack of youth participation in the process. Some of these groups had some pretty strong funding behind them so they could have a great deal of outreach. And peer-to-peer is the most effective way. Ideally, that would be face-to-face, but in 2004, young voters and these organizations started experimenting with peer-to-peer outreach using the Internet and other digital forces.

Q.How effective were those digital outreach efforts?
A.In 2004, we did see an increase in the youth vote. That increase continued in 2006 even though it was an off-year election and voter turnout was suppressed because of that. Young people turned out more in that midterm election than they had in 25 years of midterm elections. So, we’ve had a trend of young people turning out more because of new media outreach.

Q.What digital media trends did you find in this election?

A.There were a lot of different things that happened. First, these youth voter organizations really hit the ground running. Some of them had actually remained active during off-election years. Rock the Vote, which is probably the most visible organization, had been revitalized in this campaign and was highly active in coordinating other youth voter organizations under one umbrella.

We also saw a number of young people start getting involved in campaigns on their own and through grassroots efforts. Using new media sources, they were able to mobilize themselves, their peers and even other age groups by their energy – basically, being innovative with new types of media and digital outreach. They were the ones that were on Facebook and putting up videos on YouTube. We’re talking about videos generated by the citizen voter; videos that didn’t come from an organization or campaign. They were the ones sharing election information virally through e-mails and other sources.

Q.Did these grassroots efforts dictate the way candidates shared information?

A.I think candidates learned a great deal from young people. The candidates that brought young people on board and incorporated these types of techniques into their campaigns, like Barack Obama, were successful. I think many of the campaigns tried to do that, but I think Barack Obama did it to an extent that no other candidate has ever done.

A lot of the techniques that young people brought to his campaign were the ones that were absolutely path breaking -- forms of microtargeting that used digital technology to get to specific types of youth were really important. There’s the kind of a standard new media, which would be Web sites, discussion boards, and I would even say blogs. Then there would be the next level, which would be the social networking sites, the video-sharing sites, podcasts, etc. Obama just had armies of young people working these new kinds of communication channels. And it was extremely effective. That’s not to say that the other candidates didn’t do it, as well.

We should not forget that John McCain, eight years ago, was the first candidate to use the Internet to solicit funding. It’s not as if he’s a stranger to using the Internet or hasn’t in the past been aggressive with it, I just think he reached that kind of first-level plateau where he hit all the standard buttons, but didn’t go to the next level. Hillary Clinton was the same. Her media and new media campaign was good, but it wasn’t fantastic. We had one candidate who was really good and one candidate who just broke all records.

Q.When did the use of new media become a staple in campaigning?
A.I think there are different plateaus when you talk about new media. I think people will take the Obama campaign and use it as a template on how to run a successful campaign. Those things will be the norms in upcoming elections, but technology will lift new media usage to yet another plateau, and who knows what that next level will be.

Q.You talk about Obama’s strategic use of new media during this campaign, how much of a role did it play in his presidential victory?
A.His campaign generated enthusiasm and excitement about this election and got people more actively engaged and much of that can be attributed to the use new media. On both political sides, surveys found a majority of citizens actually went to the Internet for some sort of political information to connect with a candidate or figure out some way of engaging with this election. In the past, the numbers have been nowhere near that. It’s been more like 25 percent. Where television is still the main source, these new technologies have really caught hold.

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