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Obama campaign will change election strategy, U. of I. political expert says

3/26/2008

Michael Cheney
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
University of Illinois professor Michael Cheney predicts the 2008 tradition-busting race will cement the social networking power of the Internet into the pavement of future campaign trails.

Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The 2008 election will carve a spot in history, whether a yet-to-be-settled Democratic primary yields the first woman presidential nominee or the first African-American.

 But a University of Illinois professor predicts the tradition-busting race will also leave another legacy, cementing the social networking power of the Internet into the pavement of future campaign trails.

Michael Cheney says Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama elevated the Internet’s social reach from novelty to necessity after using it to build online grassroots support that helped fuel his rapid rise in a race in which rival Hillary Clinton once seemed nearly a lock.

“I think the social media have to be part of campaigns in the future,” said Cheney, a senior fellow with the university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs who studies online campaigning. “Candidates who don’t use this model aren’t going to do very well. This is the way you get your base mobilized; this is the way you raise money.”

He says Obama added a new high-tech wrinkle to campaign strategy by encouraging supporters to interact online, with other users as well as the campaign.  Those personal endorsements have mustered waves of new support and also help build a massive database of backers that the campaign can call on later for donations or to work in the trenches ahead of primaries.

The Illinois senator expanded his online reach by collecting names, e-mail addresses and hometowns in lieu of cash for tickets to events, buttons and other campaign souvenirs, said Cheney, a professor of communications and economics.

“Every event generated a few thousand new e-mails and addresses,” he said. “Other candidates can do mass mailings, but they have no idea where you live.”

“Obama does, so he can mobilize people when he needs to,” Cheney said.

The rich database lets Obama’s camp zero in on cities and even neighborhoods, providing a personal touch on the ground that mirrors the influence of online e-mail exchanges, said Cheney, who plans a book detailing Obama’s use of social media.

“It’s not cold-call knocking by outsiders. They get local people who can say ‘I know you, I live three doors down, and I want you to consider Barack Obama.’ It’s all local, which is social organizing at its best,” he said.

But Cheney says candidates have to be willing to pay a price to reap the political benefits of social media. The online strategy only works, he said, if candidates are willing to give up the traditional top-down method of controlling their message, letting supporters craft their own and giving them a stake in the process.

“One of the things that has been percolating is that a lot of folks are disenchanted with Washington and feel shut out, which explains the rise of things like political blogs.  Obama has really energized a large portion of the voting public who felt closed out of the process – that there was nothing they could do to make a difference,” Cheney said.

“Obama’s campaign is built from the bottom up, not the top down,” he said. “The issues percolate and his campaign is always on the lookout for new issues that rise from the online constituencies. That gets more people involved and expands the Democrats’ usual core issues of health care, employment, education and Social Security.”

He says some candidates, including Clinton and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, likely will be uneasy about relinquishing control over their message to rank-and-file supporters. But he says the disenfranchised voters who have embraced Obama’s campaign, particularly younger voters, should sway them.

“If they’re looking for a long career in politics, they’ll take notice,” Cheney said. “While Obama is bringing out this large cohort of younger voters, what about your voters, Mr. Senator?”

“In 10 years, how many of your voters are still going to be alive? This is a guy who is bringing out a whole new generation and you need to tap into it.”  

Editor’s note: To contact Michael Cheney, call 217-244-4824 or e-mail mrcheney@illinois.edu.