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Liam Maxwell: How the internet took Obama back to the 1950s

Dmlm Liam Maxwell's paper on Barack Obama's internet campaign is published by the Centre for Policy Studies tomorrow (download a copy).  Liam Maxwell is a councillor in Windsor and Maidenhead.

On the eve of Bill Clinton's election in 1992, his campaign manager James Carville thanked his troops in the "War Room" saying "We changed the way campaigns were run …we took out the hierarchy….  you people showed you could be trusted".

Barack Obama's brilliantly eclectic combination of young talent halfway up a skyscraper in downtown Chicago is but the very tip of a huge campaign body of one and a half million committed volunteers that have changed the rules all over again. With 6 million e-mail addresses, 3 million donors, 1.5 million volunteers and at last count 800 pages of Facebook friend requests every day the campaign towers over the McCain machine.

Compare the campaign's 43 offices in Indiana (which last voted blue in 1964) with McCain's one. Add to this the problems the GOP's talismanic Voter Vault  was rumoured to be having and it is no surprise that in states like Indiana and Iowa the Republican campaign is floundering.

When we met last week, Penny Pritzker, the architect of the Obama ground game in fundraising, explained how Obama had raised three times as much as McCain.

The requirement was simple – "we need a huge number of people on the ground, with a consistent message very quickly". Small contribution funding will follow if everyone has the feeling of involvement.

So the campaign business has been franchised, offering each supporter high quality collateral, access to a database of voters grouped by interest and the blogging and social networking tools that make campaigning less confrontational and more social.

As I explain in my pamphlet, How the Internet took Obama back to the 1950s, published tomorrow by the Centre for Policy Studies every campaigner gets their own online office and the tools they need.

The shop floor contains some of the most talented new media brains in the world (a Facebook founder sits anonymously in the middle of the open plan office  -  six Google Analytics guys just showed up one day) all of them working flat out. What really struck me was the speed of the operation. Many franchises find it difficult to get the message to the field and mistrust builds up – here requests for clearance of text are lightning fast.

Molly Claflin, a hugely impressive new-media specialist, explained how getting it right at the centre has led to a massive growth in "outlets"- there are thousands of campaign offices across the country and the online system lets people work from anywhere.

But underneath this slick machine and the media's (and my) adulation of its tech wizardry is a much simpler message. This is an internet campaign but it is a broadband internet campaign – it is asynchronous. The download from the centre is much more relevant than the upload from the individual.

Yes the campaign has thousands of online volunteers who can be instantly directed to counties in battleground states, but this isn't such a new concept.

At bottom it's really just a very well executed but traditional campaign that uses the internet to get the central message out consistently every time. It feels like the mass market politics redolent of 1950s Britain; the internet has taken this campaign back to first principles and it has been successful beyond their wildest expectations - watch for Indiana to see if they are realised.


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