washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Bypassing the Filters

One of the standard observations made about the Democratic presidential nominating contest is that Barack Obama’s rhetorical skills often have an amazing impact on people who hear him speak—but that these skills are less relevant to the kind of broad-based, national contest he faces on Super Tuesday.
A case in point: After winning the South Carolina primary, Barack Obama made one of his signature speeches, lyrical and soaring; responsive to the critics of his campaign while promoting the broader themes of healing America’s divisions and bringing a new generation of voters into the process. It was a home run with runners aboard.
But he made that speech at about 9:00 pm EST on a Saturday, a time when relatively few Americans are watching television, much less television news. This is such a dead time for TV that the networks often spend it airing old reruns. Eight years ago, Obama’s speech would have been regarded as a tragic waste of eloquence.
Today, however, we live in an age of multi-media video, and Obama’s speech is getting the kind of secondary exposure that would have been unheard of in the recent past.
Minutes after Obama finished thanking the people of South Carolina, his campaign had uploaded the speech in its entirety to YouTube. As of today, it’s been viewed 323,534 times, and as I’m looking at it now, eight more people are watching it with me. That’s the most of any news clip today. Including me, 1,445 different users YouTube have made the video a “favorite”– the most of any clip of any kind in the last 24 hours—which gives it additional exposure. So far, it has won 14 different honors on the site.
In some ways, it seems remarkable that close to a third of a million people would choose to watch a 20 minute political speech on their computers. But Obama’s campaign has counted on people doing just that, and it’s one of those hidden factors that could affect the nominating contest down the road.
Today, Howard Kurtz writes about how Obama’s media team has made a conscious effort to avoid the kind of media cycle gamesmanship that has become the hallmark of campaigns durng the last two decades. David Axelrod — Obama’s chief strategist — told Kurtz, ” What we don’t do is spend six hours a day trying to persuade you guys that red is green or up is down… what’s powering this campaign is a rejection of tactical politics.”
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal described how the Obama campaign avoided playing the “street money” game in South Carolina. He made a conscious decision to avoid putting local political leaders in the payroll in order to get support from their voters. Instead, the campaign brought in organizers and built a new organic network of supporters and volunteers.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how the Obama campaign was building a new community of supporters online, bypassing the existing Netroots infrastructure almost entirely.
These are all examples of how the Obama campaign is doing something new: leveraging technology and community organizing to reach people one on one. It is avoiding the traditional and even nontraditional filters — the conventional media, the leaders of the blogosphere, and the Party establishment — to speak directly to voters. Both online and in the two states where Obama spent the most time (Iowa and South Carolina), that is paying off and people are responding to him.
The question remains, however, whether that strategy will continue to work when the playing field expands into a nation-wide contest — one where Barack Obama simply does not have the time or resources to court his voters so personally. His real hope is that voters use the new infrastructure he is helping to build to come find him. And no matter who wins the Democratic presidential nomination, Democrats should learn from his campaign’s experience in developing a media strategy for the general election.

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