The 2008 U.S. presidential campaign drew the attention of the world. In the aftermath, the Obama campaign’s use of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were widely credited with helping secure the historic victory of President Barack Obama.
But the Obama campaign wouldn’t have been able to make its technological strides without the innovations first deployed by the Howard Dean campaign years before; and, in turn, the designers of the Dean campaign made sure to study the technology lessons of Jessie Ventura’s successful gubernatorial run.
The dawn of the Internet era and introduction of technologies such as email lists and social media have had a remarkable impact on American politics. Below are some highlights, game-changing moments, and other uses of technology that stand as significant moments in political history.
The Internet Era
An early moment in any timeline about modern tech development in politics is the February 1997 creation of the GOP Internet forum FreeRepublic. To put it in perspective, 1998 was the year Google was founded. It was also the year that MoveOn was created for progressives as a political community formed in response to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Another early note: I would be remiss not to include the now famous 1999 Al Gore interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s “Late Edition,” when the the vice president declared, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth.” Though technically not claiming credit for the Internet, Gore’s comments would become famous.
Following Sen. John McCain’s 2000 primary win in New Hampshire, the New York Times ran a story with this headline: His Success in New Hampshire Brings McCain an Overnight Infusion of Cybercash. The story cited figures released by the McCain campaign that suggested he raised more than $500,000 over the Internet in less than 24 hours after the polls closed. This was a significant moment for online fundraising.
The 2000 election year saw the Bush campaign make innovative use of phone bank technology for get-out-the-vote initiatives. It also used email lists to drive voters to action.
That campaign year was notable for the use of online ads. A study from AdRelevance, Nielsen Online’s service that tracks advertising activity, was reported in USA Today on October 30, 2000. It suggested that “Republicans used a more ‘targeted’ approach, while Democrats relied on a ‘broad reach’ effort. The Republicans, for example, ran more than 20 unique banners on 35 sites…the Democrats achieved all their exposure with a single banner ad on Yahoo.”
The AdRelevance study also reported that Republicans used online marketing tools to build a database of 700,000 names.
2001 saw the emergence of popular political websites such as the Libertarian-leaning Instapundit and liberal community website MyDD. The latter was established by Jerome Armstrong, who would go on to work on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Armstrong’s writing on MyDD also featured one of the first references to the online-based political activism term “netroots.”
2002 saw the rise of one of the web’s most popular bloggers, Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos. Two years later, Moulitsas would be among the first bloggers given press credentials to cover the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
February 2003 saw a tectonic shift in how political campaigns are run, thanks to the rise of Howard Dean and his campaign’s use of Meetup to empower supporters to self-organize. The Dean campaign also created a YouTube-like online video site call Dean TV, experimented with SMS, used an online event tool called Get Local, and created a pre-Facebook-style site called Deanlink, among other pioneering innovations.
“We fell into this by accident,” Dean told Wired magazine. “I wish I could tell you we were smart enough to figure this out. But the community taught us. They seized the initiative through Meetup. They built our organization for us before we had an organization.”
According to the Wired piece, in February 2003 there were 11 Dean meetings around the country organized through Meetup. By late fall, there were more than 800 monthly meetings on the calendar.
Zephyr Teachout, director of Internet organizing for Dean For America, told me that of all the online tools experimented with and deployed during the campaign, the meeting tool was the most exciting.
“The meeting tool was completely opposed internally when we started designing it in May 2003,” she said. “If you ask people what [they] do for a candidate, now I think most people know that they can go to events and get other people to support them whereas 10 years ago it wouldn’t even be possible. It’s really changed people’s sense of possibility in terms of their potential interaction with a campaign.”
Another significant technical innovation in 2003 came when Arizona became the first state to implement online voter registration.
2004 saw the launch of the successful Democratic online fundraising outfit ActBlue. The summer of 2004 was also marked by the Rock the Vote campaign that registered an estimated 1.2 million new voters. The campaign included a partnership with Motorola that launched a large-scale mobile political project which enabled people to sign up to receive information on their mobile devices.
That same year, the Washington Times had reported in August that Daily Kos received about 200,000 visitors a day during the Democratic National Convention.
And on September 9, bloggers for the right-leaning site Power Line published a post suggesting Dan Rather’s “60 Minutes II” report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service included some fraudulent memos. The post and the more than 500 other sites that linked to it are credited with exposing the report and later causing CBS News to apologize, leading to Dan Rather’s resignation. Time Magazine named Power Line Blog of the Year.
In early 2005, three former PayPal employees, Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim created YouTube. The popular video sharing site has significantly changed political campaigns, by allowing citizens to post their own video from campaign events, including politicians making faux pas.
By May of 2005 a new site called The Huffington Post was launched by Arianna Huffington, Kenneth Lerer, and Jonah Peretti that would add a new dynamic to online political coverage.
Today, politicians with blogs are very common, but in 2005 Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston established the first Congressional blog with the help of rising GOP Internet guru David All.
In 2005, another GOP Internet tech star, Patrick Ruffini, the webmaster for the 2000 Bush campaign, launched the highly successful “eCampaign” operation while at the Republican National Committee.
By 2006, political campaigns online were widespread and in full force. In June, one of the first to test out the use of YouTube for their campaign was Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston. He posted a video of what his campaign called Mailtube, an attempt to reach out to constituents through the use of online video.
YouTube started to take hold of the political imagination when, on August 15, 2006, then Sen. George Allen (R-VA) called opposition campaign volunteer S.R. Sidarth “macaca.” The video went viral and is seen as a major turning point that led to Allen’s electoral defeat.
2006 was also the year that the Rightroots coalition was created to support GOP candidates online. The site raised over $300,000 for different candidates.
Zephyr Teachout said the initial use of most technologies is not where it ends up having an impact. She cites the Dean campaign’s use of Meetup and email as examples. Echoing this point, 2007 saw some of the most notable uses of technology in political campaigns. One example is how Barack Obama’s team took the social networking suite developed by the Dean campaign to a new level with Blue State Digital’s creation of My.BarackObama.com.
Facebook gave rise to an enormous constituency of political activity in 2008, and upstart Twitter dipped its toes in the campaign waters. One of the biggest tech innovations of the year came on July 23, when CNN held the first YouTube Debate for the Democrats in Charleston, S.C. The Dems were followed by the GOP’s November 28 YouTube Debate in St. Petersburg, Fla.
2007 also saw an innovative use of distributed online video by Mike Huckabee’s campaign for the GOP nomination. Ron Paul, building on Howard Dean’s pioneering fundraising efforts, created the money bomb which raised $4.3 million in 24 hours on November 5 largely through online donations. Paul did it again on Dec. 16 when his campaign brought in $6 million in 24 hours, which Fox News called the biggest one-day take ever.
In other 2007 notes, Slatecard was created by David All and Sendhil Panchadsaram as a website that funneled contributions to conservative candidates. All also started the group blog TechRepublican, focusing on the intersection of Republican politics and technology. (In April 2009, TechRepublican was awarded the Golden Dot Award for the Best Blog in National Politics).
Another tech innovation launched in 2007 was the Ustream.tv platform for live online interactive video broadcasts. The technology was been widely used by politicians, including by Barack Obama when he appeared with Oprah during a South Carolina rally which included 74,000 participants.
Supported by online campaigning, the Democrats had a good election year in 2008, taking large majorities in both houses of Congress and celebrating the election of Barack Obama.
Tech innovations played a big role in the election successes of the Dems. One notable highlight was the August 28 text from the Obama campaign:
In October 2008, the Obama campaign released its free Obama08 app, which organized a person’s iPhone contacts to enable supporters to call friends located in important electoral districts among other features.
While much of the attention in 2008 was on the Democrats, in the spring of 2008 The Next Right was formed as a GOP imitation of the huge left-wing community Daily Kos and MyDD.
In other significant tech innovations, Facebook Connect was launched in July. Connect is a set of APIs from Facebook that enables Facebook members to log onto third-party websites. The release of the API paved the way for the David All Group development of the award winning Act.ivi.st, which integrates with a campaign and sends out messages to the online communities including Facebook and Twitter.
“The idea of web surfing is so dead,” All told me. “Once you get people to a website, it’s rare they are going to go back too often. But, every single day they are going to be logging into Facebook and they are going to be engaging with that community. So if your news can be liked or commented on and engaged with it is really powerful.”
After one of the biggest election years in modern history, in March 2009 New York’s 20th congressional district held a special election. Democrat Scott Murphy’s successful run was supported by a new tech innovation from Google, the Google Blast Advertising Campaign, which blanketed sites running Google AdSense with Murphy ads targeted to people in his district.
With elections fast approaching, we’re bound to see new kinds of tech innovation that will turn heads this year. I recently wrote here on MediaShift about how the election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts was aided by a smartphone app created for GOP candidates called Walking Edge. It offered Brown’s canvassers a database of where undecided voters and supporters live. The app used geo-location tools and Google Maps so that after canvassers made contact with a person, they could update the database in real time.
The Walking Edge falls squarely in what Zephyr Teachout describes as the “data oligarch” model, which is designed to create massive databases. But Teachout said there is also the potneital for the Internet to allow for more civic organizing.
“[The Internet is] one of the greatest collective action problem-solving tools in world history,” Teachout said. “These are constantly in tension with each other.”
What do you think of the milestones in our list? Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments.
Steven Davy is a freelance journalist, and freelance radio reporter/producer. He regularly covers the defense industry and security related issues for UPI. Additionally, he hosts a current affairs newsmagazine radio show called the Nonchalant Café Hour which broadcasts live in Kalamazoo, Mich. Steven recently created Exploring Conversations as a multimedia website examining the language of music for his graduate thesis project at Michigan State University.