Political Campaigns Go Viral

March 09, 2011

Since 1952—when New York ad man Rosser Reeves convinced GOP presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower to run television ads with a snappy jingle, "You like Ike, I like Ike, Everybody likes Ike"—campaigns have spent most of their budgets on TV and radio.

But in the year ahead, smart campaigns will devote a good deal less money to running 30- second TV ads and a good deal more to using the Internet to organize, persuade, motivate and raise funds.

The trend toward Internet-centric campaigns is being driven by changes in where people get election information. According to the Pew Research Center, in the last presidential race 26% said they received most of their election news from the Internet, while 28% cited newspapers. In 2012, the Web will likely eclipse newspapers and close in on TV as the principal source of election news.

The Internet makes it likely that more campaigns will be self-directed from the grass roots. The tea party movement, for example, would have been impossible to organize and coordinate without email and the Web. Thus campaign managers will have to rely less on activity in centralized headquarters and more on volunteers—working at their pace and in their way—to reach voters on their laptops, tablets and smart phones.

Cutting-edge campaigns have quickly grasped how the Web makes it easier and less expensive to transmit information. But campaigns are only starting to understand how to use the Web and social-networking tools to make video and other data go viral—moving not just to those on a campaign's email list but to the broader public.

Take New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. His political operation has made videos of him into YouTube favorites viewed millions of times. Or consider the original "Obama Girl" video, which was viewed 21 million times. Its sequel, "Super Obama Girl," was viewed 37 million times.

Then there's fund raising. A powerful, and some might say strident, message can quickly generate lots of cash. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann raised an astounding $13.2 million for her last race, much of it through Internet appeals. In the closing days of his special election in January 2010, Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown raised more money from the Internet than he could spend.

The speed with which political efforts can come together will also accelerate. Nimble candidates and causes will take advantage of brief moments in the spotlight to increase awareness, organize and raise money virtually overnight. When gas prices spiked in late spring 2008, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Drill Here, Drill Now" effort corralled 300,000 Internet petition signers in just two weeks, and about a million in only two months. Three years later, the list has grown to 1.6 million advocates who write letters to the editor, buttonhole congressmen, and promote the issue.

Not everything that comes from this trend will be good. Relying more on the Internet for political information means we will come to trust sources that won't always be vetted and edited for accuracy. Witness the widespread Internet distribution of a fake Kenyan birth certificate for President Barack Obama, and the video of Mr. Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech edited to appear as though the president is admitting he's a Muslim. The latter was so cleverly edited that even otherwise sensible people are taken in. How to minimize and discredit anonymous Web smears is a real challenge.

In addition, there are likely to be many more political organizations that spring up quickly and then dwindle away once the intensity of the moment passes. They may siphon money from more worthy but less known or less edgy groups.

An influence gap could also emerge between more passive and more active voters. There's always been a disparity in influence between voters with checkbooks and voters without. But that difference could be trivial compared to the gap between those who are activated by the Internet and those who are not. Some politicians may bend to the minority that's Web-energized while ignoring the wishes of the majority that's not.

It took decades for the changes inaugurated by the "We Like Ike" TV ads to fully take hold. It will likewise take time for political practitioners to figure out what works and what doesn't work on the Internet. But we are seeing a version of Joseph Schumpeter's "creative destruction" fundamentally alter the landscape of American politics. It will have huge implications on how campaigns are run, who we elect, and what kind of country we become.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, March 9, 2011.

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