The 2008 race for the White House that comes to an end on Tuesday fundamentally upended the way presidential campaigns are fought in America, a legacy that has almost been lost with all the attention being paid to the battle between John McCain and Barack Obama.
It has rewritten the rules on how to reach voters, raise money, organize supporters, manage the news media, track and mold public opinion, and wage — and withstand — political attacks, including many carried by blogs that did not exist four years ago. It has challenged the consensus view of the American electoral battleground, suggesting that Democrats can at a minimum be competitive in states and regions that had long been Republican strongholds.
The size and makeup of the electorate may be changed because of Democratic efforts to register and turn out new African-American, Hispanic and young voters. This shift could have long-lasting ramifications for what both parties do to build enduring coalitions, especially if intensive and technologically driven voter turnout programs succeed in getting more people registered and to the polls.
“I think we’ll be analyzing this election for years as a seminal, transformative race,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to President Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004. “The year campaigns leveraged the Internet in ways never imagined. The year we went to warp speed. The year the paradigm got turned upside down and truly became bottom up instead of top down.”
To a considerable extent, Republicans and Democrats say, this is a result of the way that the Obama campaign sought to understand and harness the Internet (and other forms of so-called new media) to organize supporters and to reach voters who no longer rely primarily on information from newspapers and television. The platforms ranged from YouTube, which did not exist in 2004, to the cell phone text messages that the campaign was sending out to supporters on Monday to remind them to vote.
“We did some very innovative things on the data side, and we did some Internet,” said Sara Taylor, who was the White House political director during Bush’s re-election campaign. “But only 40 percent of the country had broadband back then. You now have people who don’t have home telephones anymore. And Obama has done a tremendous job of waging a campaign through the new media challenge. I don’t know about you, but I see an Obama Internet ad every day. And I have for six months.”
Even more crucial to the way this campaign has transformed politics has been Obama’s success at using the Internet to build a huge network of contributors that permitted him to raise enough money — after declining to participate in the public financing system — to expand the map and compete in traditionally Republican states.
No matter who wins, Republicans and Democrats say, Obama’s efforts in places like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia — organizing and advertising to voters who previously had little exposure to Democratic ideas and candidates — will force future candidates to think differently.
“The great impact that this election will have for the future is that it killed public financing for all time,” said McCain’s chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt.