Tuesday, July 29, 2008

BarackBook: An Experiment Gone Wrong

I'm not one to rehash stories (Well, not without putting my own spin on them first.), but this one is too good not to comment on. Yesterday the Republican National Committee revealed that it would be going online with a Facebook parody of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president called BarackBook. The social networking mashup had "friends" of Obama's like Tony Rezko and William Ayers in addtion to sporting commenting features and an application that could be used on the actual Facebook. At the time I thought, well, this is an interesting way to point out associations Obama may like to keep out of the limelight. But I also thought that actual friends of Obama could enter the site.

Obama apparently has a few friends (and some enemies as well) and several of them appear to be pretty savvy. The site went live yesterday, but saw its first day of scrutiny today, and the result was a mixture of participation from members of the liberal blogosphere on the one hand and racist/anti-Muslim comments on the other. A good day for the site and for comic irony.

Which brings me to my question: Is the internet an advantage for the Democrats? Usually, you expect to see the Democrats trying to match wits with the Republican and looking foolish in the process. In politics it seems, imitation is not necessarily the sincerest form of flattery. Often it just looks lame and costs the candidate/party responding credibility points. Recent electoral history is chock full of examples of Republicans pulling the proverbial fast one on the Democrats. John Kerry windsurfing or Michael Dukakis in the tank or Jimmy Carter having nothing to say to "There you go again" come to mind. But that is the mark of this era: the Democrats typically had no adequate response. And honestly, that was partly because of ineptitude and partly because of disciplined, well-run campaign strategy on the other side. It was just fantastic politics.

But I'm beginning to wonder if new online echo chamber has reversed those roles and in the process made the talk radio echo chamber antiquated. The current electoral environment is certainly tilted in favor of the Democratic Party, so that biases this observation to some extent because the GOP is on the defensive. However, have the Democrats got such an advantage online that they are the aggressors on this sort of thing now? Yes and no. Liberal bloggers definitely have a leg up on their conservative counterparts, but McCain and his campaign (in conjunction with the national party) just haven't had the type of disciplined campaign that we are used to seeing from the Republicans. There are hints of it, but it hasn't been carried out in that awesomely calculated fashion that is the calling card of the conservative strategists. It is almost as if, even though McCain is probably the best general election candidate the Republican Party could have fielded for this particular election, they don't know quite what to do with the Arizona senator. Like he just isn't one of them. And that combination has certainly hurt McCain in some cases during this summer leg of this campaign.

All the same though, the perceived Democratic advantage online isn't being coordinated by the national party in the way the GOP maneuvers of this sort have been in the past. This is a totally organic response from the masses. That underscores the differences in the two parties: the top down management style of the GOP and the bottom up populism of the Democrats. In the case of the latter it is out of the control of the national party and the Obama campaign. So while it can help, it has the potential to be harmful as well since it is not necessarily a series of coordinated actions with the party/candidate. That can pull the direction of the candidate's message off course and potentially change the narrative of the race though. Away from where the candidate may want to take it. That is where the potential for danger lies for Democrats seeking office or online.

So while Obama has successfully reigned in the activities of some outside groups, as far as 527-type ads are concerned, he still potentially faces a hurdle from his online supporters. Will there be a continued role reversal during this cycle and into the future or will online efforts haunt Obama at some point. That, my friends, will be something to keep our eyes on.

Recent Posts:
Frontloading Under Fire, Part II

Identity Theft vs. Minority Vote Suppression: Proof Positive that Virginia is a Battleground State

Iowa and Nebraska: The Caucus Question 2008 Wrap Up


MSS said...

"bottom up populism"

At least for those of us who study countries with real populism, that's an oxymoron.

Perhaps you simply mean to say democracy.

Anonymous said...

A valid point.

But what does that say about the other major party in our democracy? The next thing your going to tell me is that a partial winner-take-all system of allocating delegates is less than democratic. ;)