The internet has had a profound impact on the 2008 US presidential election. Senator John Edwards, who was at one stage a serious contender for the Democratic party's nomination, declared that had it not been for the internet, Barack Obama would not have become the Democratic nominee (Edwards, 2008). Final judgment must await the November election, but at the time of writing (late July 2008), the mainstream media's consensus is that Obama's online tools were decisive in his defeat of Hillary Clinton.
It is not just Obama's victory in the primaries that is significant. Equally important was the manner of his triumph. This primary season saw massive increases in voter turnout. Americans appear to be re-engaging with civic life, reversing a prolonged period of declining political involvement. This process was typified by the high levels of support Obama gained among younger voters.
British politicians have been watching these developments with interest, hoping to understand Obama's recipe for civic re-engagement and effective campaign mobilisation. Progressives have a particular incentive to do this. The contrast between the Democrats and the current state of the Labour Party is stark. While Labour lags in the polls, seemingly set for severe losses at the next election, the Democrats look most likely at this stage to re-capture the White House and to maintain or even improve their position in the House and the Senate.
The clear desire to 'learn lessons' from the 2008 election follows a longstanding tradition of assuming that British politicians will eventually replicate techniques employed in the United States. Adherents to this 'Americanisation' thesis cite such examples as the growing role played by personality, the rise of infotainment-style news coverage, the use of pollsters, spin doctors and other political professionals, and the dominance of the sound-bite, as evidence that Britain has usually followed in America's wake when it comes to elections and political campaigning. However, even if we accept that these arguments were applicable in the past, there are good reasons to doubt that the adoption of the internet by British parties will follow patterns similar to those on the other side of the Atlantic. The 2001 and 2005 British general elections offered scant evidence of online campaigning. If Britain is playing catch-up, how much longer must we wait?
The difference between the American and British experiences requires explanation. We argue that a comparative approach to analysing the relationship between technology and political institutions has the potential to offer renewed understanding of the development of the internet in election campaigning. Taking the different characteristics of political parties and the norms and rules of the electoral environment in the United States and Britain as an illustration, we aim to show that the relationship between technology and political institutions is best perceived as dialectical. Technologies can reshape institutions, but institutions will mediate eventual outcomes (1). This argument has important implications for precisely how British political parties may learn from the United States in the area of digital campaigning.
The 2008 digital campaign in context
Obama's online record has been staggering. At some points during the course of his primary campaign, the central website received over a million unique visitors a week. His Facebook group currently has 1.2 million members, while he has nearly half a million friends on MySpace. Obama's YouTube videos have currently been watched 56 million times, with the most viewed video being the 37-minute 'more perfect union' speech on race at Philadelphia, which had, by July 2008, been seen 5.6 million times in its entirety.
Impressive though these numbers are, they are significant for what they helped Obama achieve. A year ago, he was viewed--at best--as a long shot candidate, likely to be electorally annihilated by the Clinton juggernaut. However, Obama's early success online generated a buzz around his campaign and, crucially, allowed him to quickly achieve financial parity with the Clinton fundraising machine through the support of hundreds of thousands of small donors who gave sums far below the federal limit. While the campaign employed internet professionals in senior positions, such as Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, it also relied heavily on the work of grassroots political entrepreneurs with no direct links to the campaign, other than a desire to see Obama elected president. For example, the successful Facebook group 'one million strong for Barack' was founded by Farouk Olu Aregbe, an administrator at the University of Missouri. Within three weeks of its creation in January 2007, it had 200,000 members (Stelter, 2008, Vargas, 2007).
The Obama campaign's online structures were multi-functional. Vertical communication, between the upper echelons of the campaign and activists on the ground, operated in both directions. The campaign's massive email list could be used to send out updates and fundraising appeals to supporters, while an online telephone canvassing system enabled supporters to enter information directly into a central database. Perhaps most innovative was the horizontal communication between activists enabled through MyBarackObama, the social network element of the main campaign site. This allowed supporters to...