The way Sen. Barack Obama ran his campaign was thoroughly discussed in a series of panel discussions and other presentations at “The Obama Effect” conference held October 23-25 at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Participants included several college professors who have been closely studying the campaign. They discussed the compelling issues and events that surrounded Obama’s ascendancy to becoming the first Black man to be elected president of the United States.
First of all, Obama, rather than wait for others to promote him for president, took the initiative himself, noted Heather Harris, a business communication professor at Stevenson University. “He had a wonderful plan, and I am sure he thought about how he was going to run. He really used that community, grassroots organizer skill that he developed to the point where we are sitting here for three days discussing what he’s doing, how he is doing it, and what he is going to do next. He placed himself in a position where many thought he didn’t deserve to be.”
“Any political campaign has two major themes that make a difference,” University of the Pacific (Calif.) Communication Department Chair and Associate Professor Qingwen Dong pointed out: “one, what is the message, and two, is this message effective or not.”
Obama early on realized that more people are using social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. He successfully used “resonant messages that prompt action and participation” through this media to connect with potential voters better than all the other candidates who ran for president, including Senators Hilary Clinton and John McCain, Dong added. Obama also used personal pronouns in all emails, phone calls and text messages sent to potential voters, the professor noted.
Websites also were set up that included such features as “Barack TV,” a YouTube channel, which had at least 17.2 million people viewing his speeches, said Michael Cheney, a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, as well as fact-check links to dispute statements about the candidate. “It allows more people to get involved,” Cheney pointed out.
President-elect Obama’s website “was very reflective of his grassroots, community organizer roots,” noted Harris, who along with University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s Kimberly Moffitt, is co-authoring a paper on the Obama campaign.
Cheney said the Obama campaign employed both “an on-line strategy and an on-ground strategy” that he called “Media Politics 2.0.” One example he cited was the way the campaign often scheduled speeches after John McCain gave his so that they could be shown on the website and point out inconsistencies before Obama spoke.
Obama also used unifying language to reach new voters, which also distinguished between the two presidential campaigns, Harris surmised. “John McCain’s messages expressed how he is going to do things A, B and C,” while Obama used simple words such as “we” and “us” to convey his messages on how he would govern as president.
Harris added that Obama also emphasized diversity in his “One America” vision as opposed to McCain’s “Country First” campaign: “You see different ethnic individuals on [Obama’s] website, but you don’t see it on [McCain’s] — you just see John McCain on his website.”
The Obama campaign also used hip hop culture as a new public opinion poll, said Bucknell University’s Wilfredo Gomez, who wrote a paper titled “Yes We Can! Obama and the Poetical Genius of Hip Hop.”
“If I had to liken Barack Obama to anybody in hip hop culture, I might liken him to a Kanye West figure,” Gomez explained. The two “are an interesting kind of parallel on their representation of Black masculinity through hip hop culture.”
All through the campaign, the Obama organization kept mainstream media off balance, continued Cheney. This included how he raised millions of dollars through the Internet and drew crowds in the tens of thousands, which constantly baffled the media. “Mainstream media did not fully get what the Barack Obama campaign was all about,” said Cheney.
Harris said the mainstream media also was bothered by the way the Obama campaign often bypassed them to get his overall message across to voters. “In the past, when elections were happening and you wanted information, you went to the six o’clock news or the next day’s newspaper,” she pointed out. “Now, if you want information, you go to the website and check out that information for yourself to determine what it is that you want and determine if you believe what you see. You have a lot more control in terms of the news you want to absorb.”
Two weeks before the historic election of Obama, the panel participants offered their predictions:
“At the minimum, Barack Obama’s legacy has called for a greater civic engagement and a more active role in the electoral process,” said Gomez. “The only question left unanswered is what happens after November 4. Will the support of the hip hop community that translated into greater turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds continue, or will Barack’s candidacy prove to be a trend that brought the hip hop community together only for a brief period of time?”
The campaign will be endlessly studied by experts, Cheney believes. “The Obama campaign probably had the best ground game ever seen [by either] Republican or Democrat.”
Harris warned not to look for immediate change in our society because of Obama’s election. “The ‘One America’ has to be interpreted by more than just the Barack Obama campaign [promoting] it to really have an impact and a shift from the dominant framework we currently are in. That is going to have to be deconstructed, and [we will need to] start from scratch where everyone participates in what we want to see America look like. Barack Obama is only one American.”
Dong concluded, “In the next [presidential] campaign, you are going to see the use of new technology.”
This story is based on a University of Minnesota conference that discussed Barack Obama’s campaign. MSR Staff Writer Charles Hallman was among the invited participants; however, his remarks are not included in this report.
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