It’s August 2012, and the Republicans are in Tampa, Florida. The bombastic Chris Christie spoke the night before; now Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan takes the stage. For ‘Moderate Mitt’ turned ‘severely conservative’ Romney, Ryan is important. He’s the young ideological warrior to Romney’s political weathervane. He appears before the packed stadium, thunders, “Mr Chairman, delegates, and fellow citizens, I accept the calling of my generation to give our children the America that was given to us.”
In Virginia, the President is on his MacBook. He is sitting with Teddy Goff, the digital director of his campaign. Goff is explaining Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ forum to him. It’s a spontaneous question forum in which anything can be asked, Goff says. Users can submit questions, and they can vote for particular questions that they’d like to be answered. He warns the President: users punish question-dodging, self-promoting, or unauthentic answers. They reward the original, honest response rather than the prepared remark. This is not politics as usual.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah”, says the President.
Goff is confused. “All right, you know how this works?”
“No. I have no idea.”
And he posts into Reddit, “Hey everybody – this is Barack.”
Obama fields questions for forty-five minutes, on corruption and basketball and beer-brewing.
Within hours, over five million people have read the Reddit interview. The Democrats have thirty thousand newly registered voters. And on Twitter, it seemed the world had forgotten that Ryan was rabble-rousing in Florida.
“A lot has changed since 2008,” Teddy Goff told me and a small group of Australians, just weeks after the conclusion of the Obama campaign, and just hours after going shark diving. More people than ever are socialising and getting news online. There is a dramatic and well-documented shift towards people living their lives digitally. That includes accessing their politics digitally. Thirty five million people ‘like’ Obama’s Facebook page. More people are seeing his status updates than his television commercials or public addresses.
However, as Goff points out, “more has stayed the same.” We are social animals, and digital media simply represents a new sphere in which we are building relationships and crafting identity. We still seek out entertainment and enjoyment. Obama’s digital campaign, Goff explains, focused on giving people a ‘good experience’. Facebook is not a lecture theatre; Twitter not a town hall. Different expectations govern these new digital political spaces. People don’t want to be lectured they want to feel engaged – talked to, not at. And if they’re not given a good experience, they can leave with the greatest ease, without appearing rude or blocking the view of the person seated in the row behind them.
Obama’s Facebook page wasn’t just a space to proselytise for the cause of liberalism, but a place that people wanted to be connected to. Obama’s posts were often Big Brother-style video perspectives from staffers and volunteers, or photos of campaign “moments”. “Give people a good experience,” says Goff, “and they’ll come back.”
Some continuities have gained new significance amidst dramatic changes. Money has flooded American politics, Goff observes, but the impact of that is not clear. What is apparent is that it advances the disillusionment felt by voters, and aggravates their distrust of Washington. In October, the average Ohioan saw over one hundred political advertisements on television each week. If they answered the phone, they knew it would be one of the campaigns or a pollster. So they don’t pick up, they shut off to advertisements. The campaigns spent millions talking to voters who weren’t listening.
The one source voters will always listen to, and always trust, is their friends. So Goff designed a tool that, if given permission, would access a person’s Facebook friends – and rank them in terms of political importance. It would use information provided by the electoral roll and the campaign’s database – information about where a person lived and who they voted for and if they were registered and whether the campaign had contacted them before. Then it would ask the person to contact their twenty most politically important people, to tell them about a boy from Long Island who ran for public office in Chicago and now sleeps in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.
In an interview with Slate, Julia Gillard was asked which lessons she would take from the Obama campaign for the forthcoming Australian election. “The organisational techniques,” she nominated, “like our political party’s social media strategy.”
The Labor Party is “new to the game”, according to Gillard’s digital organiser.
“We are learning as we go,” he says, “digital media has not been a campaign priority before.”
Labor will be running two digital campaigns this year: one out of the National Secretariat and one out of the Prime Minister’s Office. The Secretariat’s digital presence focuses on promoting the achievements and ongoing campaigns of the Party. Its online efforts are geared towards action: “join the fight,” its website urges; donate whatever you can, its emails ask. Simple infographics showing strong economic performance have been designed and disseminated by the Secretariat team. The most successful example is a graph whose bars are national flags showing Australia’s low debt-to-GDP ratio relative to other OECD nations. Teddy Goff says that a similar graph detailing America’s improving employment numbers was published every month online, on each occasion reaching millions of people. Focus groups have suggested that the infographic persuaded thousands of voters that Obama was a good economic manager. Wayne Swan will hoping the Secretariat’s graphs can do what he has not.
The Office’s digital campaign is more varied. Although its purpose is simply to promote the Prime Minister, there is no “unified strategy,” its digital organiser says, “no single philosophy”. But it is growing more sophisticated. Email subject lines are tested. In the Obama campaign, an email titled “Romney is going to outspend us,” was five times more likely to be opened than an email titled, “Donate to the Obama campaign.” Demographic groups are targeted. Parents are more likely to be on Facebook in the mid-morning than at any other time of day, so family-related messages are posted then.
On a more philosophical level, the Office makes a sharper distinction between Twitter and Facebook than Teddy Goff did. Comparatively, Twitter is “not a great tool”, Gillard’s digital organiser says. On Facebook, posts are shared, they get ‘liked’ and go viral, they reach friends of Gillard’s ‘friends’. However, when Gillard posts something on Twitter, only the Press Gallery and politicos are listening. Goff thinks there was some value in that. Influencing journalists and thus the news agenda is important for a campaign. For Goff, Twitter’s function is complementary to that of Facebook, serving to generate positive media that is later disseminated by political supporters.
Of course, there are limits to an Australian appropriation of Goff’s gospel. America has a distinct political culture, and what flourishes there may not find fertile soil here. There, individuals build their identities around being Red or Blue. They are not necessarily more politically informed, but they are certainly more politically impassioned. Two million people gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial to hear – and only hear, because the overwhelming majority of them couldn’t see – Obama’s first inaugural address. The key difference is the movement’s “manpower”, says Gillard’s digital organiser, its “scale.” But that’s not quite it. It is more about engagement, enthusiasm, the willingness to ‘like’ a politician’s status update, to share their photo, to talk to friends about their policies.
Politics is personal, now more than ever, and, as her digital organiser concedes, “Gillard is not Obama.” The mass-based personal pull of Obama inspires historical hyperbole – Gillard fails to secure the loyalty of her own front bench. That enthusiasm gap is evident in the digital space. Australia’s population is only fourteen times smaller than that of America, and yet Gillard’s Facebook audience is two hundred and thirty times smaller than Obama’s. Goff could post an Obama quote on Facebook and watch as millions of Americans saw it within minutes. He could draw on a photograph archive stacked with images of Obama in the presence of adulating crowds and adoring children. The Office, although it is promoting a person, is not personality-focused. It can’t be.
It is fashionable to believe in a kind of Obama exceptionalism. To set him apart is easy; first African-American president, first to support gay marriage, more cerebral and more inspiring than any since John Kennedy, an almost preternaturally formidable campaigner, and, for the citizens of Utah, the first Muslim occupier of the Oval.
The Party and the Office don’t want to believe it. To them, Obama may have been the face of his digital campaign – an incomparable face admittedly – but the brain, the organs, the gristly bits – they can all be cloned. This optimism guides the Labor Party’s digital strategy. It offers hope to a digital team who must sympathise with a ship fighting against the current.
But behind the green light at the end of the dock are the dark fields of the republic. And some things can only happen in the new world.
In Tampa, the night after Ryan spoke, it is Romney’s turn. This is his chance to change the conversation, to re-introduce himself to the electorate as someone other than a crazed capitalist – the Gatsby character that the Democrats had painted, and that he’d appeared to go out of his way to confirm.
Then his warm-up act, Clint Eastwood, begins to castigate a chair. You’ve broken promises, he accuses. You’ve got to go, he says, drawing his finger across his neck.
Teddy Goff, watching Eastwood on television with a number of campaign staffers, reacts quickly. He knew this was an important moment, at once an opportunity and a threat. As the last three years had demonstrated, exaggerated or extreme opposition to the President wasn’t always greeted as farce, wasn’t always subject to the whiplash of rationality.
Goff finds a photo of the President’s chair in the Situation Room. The photo shows Obama’s head just above the back of the chair, and a placard on the back of chair engraved with the words, ‘The President’. Goff tweets it, with the line, “This seat’s taken.” And that becomes the story. It is retweeted six hundred thousand times, is seen by tens of millions, becoming the most successful tweet of the campaign until the night of November 6 and ‘Four More Years.’