The blog of Eric Lee - web design and internet consulting for the trade union movement.

Obama's victory, the Internet and learning the wrong lessons


One of the stranger things being said about Barack Obama's election victory is that part of the reason for his success was his use of the Internet.

Obama, we are told, 'got it'. John McCain did not. The young guy was clued in, and old geezer couldn't use a keyboard.

Not only did the pundits say this, but the Obama campaign itself used McCain's inability to send an email in one of its campaign ads. It was a way of saying that McCain was out of touch.

Much has been made of the fact that Obama raised a tremendous amount of money using the Internet, and that his website made use of cutting edge technology – including social networks like Facebook – very effectively.

The danger of all this is that campaigners are going to believe it is true. And my concern is that unions are going to buy into this as well.

The fact is that long before Obama faced the technically-illiterate John McCain, he faced a field of other Democratic candidates. Did Obama have the best website of the lot? Did he make the most use of cutting edge technology?

The answer is no. The guru of online campaigning – the guy who turned Howard Dean's abortive 2004 bid for the Presidency into a serious campaign – didn't back Obama. His name is Joe Trippi and his candidate in early 2008 was John Edwards.

The consensus of pundits early in the year was that Edwards had by far the best website of any candidate. He had a presence on every social network – not only Facebook and MySpace but dozens you never heard of. There were so many little icons on the Edwards website pointing to obscure networks and social bookmarking services that you had to begin to wonder if they were making some of this up. It was all a bit overkill.

Trippi used every trick of the trade to energize the Edwards campaign with the new technology. Massive fundraising efforts were made, the Edwards website was entirely opened to bloggers, it was all extremely cutting edge stuff.

But after an initial decent second place in the Iowa caucuses, the Edwards campaign stalled.

It didn't matter that Edwards had the best web team and the best website. Obama ran a better campaign.

In fact, if you look over the U.S. Presidential campaign of 2008, the candidate who made the best use by far of the net turned out to be Ron Paul – who despite tremendous online enthusiasm (and real success in online fundraising) actually placed last among the Republican candidates.

Part of what happened in 2008, I think, is that the web matured. In other words, back in 1996, if a presidential candidate had a website, it had to be built from scratch. There was no template. No one knew what best practice was.

By 2004, Trippi and the Dean campaign were laying down the rules for how you use the new tools – including blogs, meet-up, RSS feeds and so on.

These days, we're beyond the experimentation and the result is that most politicians' websites look pretty much like everyone else's. If early in the year you'd looked at the Edwards, Obama and Clinton sites, you'd have been hard pressed to notice big differences. Even the splash pages looked almost identical.

They all built giant mailing lists, they all raised tons of money online, and they all used blogging and social networks.

It was all a bit like those short Olympic races where athletes are so well-trained that the difference between first and second place is a tiny fraction of a second. In other words, they're all pretty much working at the same level.

That's what Presidential campaign websites are like today. They were all pretty much the same professional operations – at least among the Democrats.

Obama didn't win because unlike the others he raised money online or used Facebook. He won above all because he personally energized a tremendous number of people, especially young people. Edwards may have had the better website and the best Internet team early in 2008, but he wasn't the more charismatic candidate.

There are lessons here for campaigning organizations, including trade unions.

As the web matures, and as our understanding of online campaigns grows, unions and employers are going to operate on what is pretty much a level playing field online.

We'll create great campaigning websites with viral videos and Flash games to promote things like the Employee Free Choice Act.

And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart and McDonalds will create equally professional, cutting-edge online campaigns to fight back.

It should not be forgotten that the most successful political website of the 2008 campaign – the one belonging to Ron Paul – represented what was probably the most anti-union candidate in the field.

In other words, the opposition is just as good as we are at using these tools. Maybe even better.

Of course we should all study the Obama campaign. Anyone interested in campaigning – and winning – learns from the victors. If McCain had won, we should have learned lessons from his campaign as well.

But we should not learn the wrong lessons. And the idea that someone Obama won because he understood the web better than his opponents is simply not true.

Unions that think that adding a Facebook icon to their home page, or organizing avatars in virtual three-dimensional worlds are somehow going to reverse a decades-long decline in union membership are in for a real surprise.

There are no such things as 'virtual strikes'. The only ones that really matter are the ones that put a dent into corporate profits. That's the only language employers understand.

No 'virtual picket line' is going to compell an employer to do what they don't want.

Online campaigns only work as part of a broader effort that includes real world activities – such as strikes and picket lines, boycotts and political campaigns.

The real lesson of Obama's campaign is that an inspiring leader can still mobilize millions – and that the candidate with the most links to the very latest cool tools is not necessarily the one who will win.


I actually agree with most of this, Eric. Obama's use of the Net was very good but that's not why he won. He won because he was a great candidate standing at a time when so many Americans yearned for change.

I would argue that the main lesson of the campaign for trade unions is not the use of the Web but the creation of a grassroots organisation.

Sarah Palin may have attempted to ridicule Obama's experience as a community organiser, but it was that experience that taught him that campaigns are ultimately won and lost on the ground - not in legislatures, television studios or on the Net.

Right on, Eric. The only thing I would add is that email and web sites are no substitute for face-to-face conversations. While these tools are useful for informing and mobilizing committed members, they will not convince uncommitted folks to act on any issue.