By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—Does Barack Obama have the potential to trump Hillary Clinton’s money, organization and methodical planning by becoming the online phenomenon of 2008? The answer to that question may determine who wins the Democratic presidential nomination.
This is the election in which Internet campaigning will reach maturity. The 2000 campaign offered the first glimmers of the medium’s power when John McCain surprised the political world by raising $6 million to $7 million online in his unsuccessful Republican primary campaign against George W. Bush.
Howard Dean rode the Internet from nowhere to a strong early position in the 2004 Democratic presidential race, only to fall to John Kerry. The same anti-Bush sentiment that had powered Dean later allowed Kerry to raise an estimated $82 million in Internet contributions.
Today, the next new thing is old hat—but still evolving. “It’s so mainstream now that every part of the campaign touches the Internet,” said Becki Donatelli, who pioneered McCain’s 2000 Internet fundraising and is working for him again. “It’s the 900-pound gorilla. It’s the real thing.”
That, says Joe Trippi, Dean’s first campaign manager and a longtime preacher of the Internet gospel, means that no single 2008 candidate will have the early command of the online world that Dean enjoyed.
“It’s hard to have a Dean-like phenomenon ever again,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive advocacy group, “because the Internet is not a shiny new toy anymore.”
The question is whether Obama will have an edge as the candidate who talks about his campaign as a participatory mass movement and is trying to embody the word new. Trippi, who is neutral this year, sees Obama as having “a lot of advantages” in Internet campaigning, particularly because “he is really connecting with young people, as Dean did early on.”
But much will depend on whether Obama’s approach lives up to his high-minded promise to supporters that his campaign won’t “only be about me” and will become instead “the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams.”
That language, at least, matches one measure of a successful Internet campaign, according to Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, a liberal group that has not endorsed a 2008 candidate yet. “You have to make people feel they’re part of the campaign,” he says, “that they’re not just people a candidate is trying to suck money out of.”
Clinton, says Trippi, also has the disadvantage of being a front-runner who has received wide publicity for her prowess at large-scale, conventional fundraising. This, he says, might lead potential Internet givers to the conclusion that “she doesn’t need the money.” Obama, he says, has a better chance of creating a sentiment among online donors that they are an important part of his campaign.
But Obama faces two obstacles to overwhelming Clinton on the Internet. The first is John Edwards, whose strong stands against the Iraq war and in favor of a sweeping national health insurance plan have made him popular among the more ideologically committed bloggers and their audiences. Obama and Edwards will be in competition for some of the same online support.
The second is the Clinton campaign’s awareness that the Internet matters this year as it never has before. “The Clintons have mastered every other aspect of politics,” says Rosenberg. “They’re going to be competitive in this arena.” Hillary Clinton, he notes, has been careful—through her well-produced webcast announcement speech and online “conversations”—to show she understands the new desire among political activists for more interaction with the candidates they support.
Clinton also could benefit from what Donatelli sees as a major shift in the sources of online money. “In 2000, nearly 90 percent of what we took in on our website came from people who found their way to us,” she said, referring to McCain’s effort. Now, 50 percent of Internet money is raised through “direct marketing.”
Clinton will almost certainly do well on the marketing side, and both Trippi and Rosenberg argue that she is likely to find a strong niche among Democratic women, who have become increasingly important to the party’s financial base.
In the coming months, partly because it’s fun to do, the political world will be watching Hollywood and Wall Street to see who racks up the big money. But 2008 promises to be the year when decisions made at millions of computer screens on kitchen tables and office desks could outshine the glitz and beat out the large checkbooks. The Internet could thus provide Obama his best chance of keeping up with one of the most formidable fundraisers in Democratic politics.
E.J. Dionne Jr.‘s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.