From texting to Twitter, Obama’s tools and consultants are shaping overseas campaigns
Kobi Haddad didn't do much to hide the fact that his candidate’s website was modeled almost entirely on that of President Barack Obama. From the bright blue backdrop, to the prominence of the social networking tools, to the font—Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign website was practically an exact replica.
Instead of “Obama TV,” the video section of Netanyahu’s site was labeled “Likud-TV.” And the title on the right side of the page that presides over the array of social networking options reads “Netanyahu Everywhere.” On Obama’s site it was “Obama Everywhere.”
“Well, yes [the campaign] did want it that way,” Haddad says. He heads the Israeli web design firm KCSnet, which designed the Netanyahu site. But, he adds “The website did have, and still has, its own personality design-wise.”
While that’s a matter for debate, it’s clear that Netanyahu’s web operation reflects the latest trend in international campaigning—a desire to have the slickest website on the block and the assumption that it all but makes you your country’s Barack Obama.
“This technology revolution is spreading to campaigns all over the world,” says Tad Devine, a senior strategist for both Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns. He’s consulted for the Fianna Fáil party during Ireland’s last three national elections. “We’re just about to see [foreign campaigns] start using this stuff on a much wider scale.”
Devine helped the party sign up with Blue State Digital, which launched in 2004 after Howard Dean’s campaign and helped power Obama’s online efforts in 2008. Blue State just finished redesigning Fianna Fáil’s website. It now includes interactive elements that let constituents interface with local leaders or volunteer for the upcoming campaign. There’s also a separate party-sponsored voter registration site. Among the party’s rudimentary efforts: building a blogger mailing list and communicating via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
For now, though, says Devine, politics in Ireland is likely to still be driven primarily by traditional means of campaigning: door-to-door canvassing and community-based organizing. And given the laws, campaign fundraising is unlikely to move online in a major way. Still, the potential and the opportunity are ripe for U.S.-based web consultants to expand their business into Ireland and other countries.
“It’s really just beginning at a very serious level there,” Devine says. “Right now, the party just wants to have the best possible communication with folks. Later, as the effort grows, it will be a tool to organize and mobilize.”
The Obama Copycats
For many foreign campaigns, a site that looks just like Obama’s is the first step. One of the most commonly imitated features is the Obama logo—the sun symbol with a blue backdrop rising over arching bands of red and white.
South Africa is set to elect a new National Assembly at the end of the month, which in turn will select South Africa’s next president.
To brand itself before those critical elections, the Democratic Alliance—the opposition to the country’s current ruling party—is flaunting a logo that is strikingly similar to Obama’s. Its spin uses blue-colored rays shooting out from a white sun. The streaks below use the colors of South Africa’s flag.
For all its imitation of the Obama design, even less subtle is the party’s main message: change. The word is splashed all over the website, and features prominently in the DA’s television ads. The country’s ruling party—The African National Congress—has an equally robust presence on the web. While the party’s main website feels a bit like an online relic, it recently launched a separate campaign site equipped with the online organizing basics. The party doesn’t try to co-opt the Obama logo or design, but the influence is apparent from the URL: myanc.org.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, or CDU, have created “Team 2009,” an Obama-esque website geared toward voter communication and mobilization. Team 2009’s logo is another Obama rip off—a circle with three streaks of color matching the black, red and orange of the German flag.
The Obama imitations aren’t always flattering ones for the current U.S. president, though. The man who fashions himself as El Salvador’s Barack Obama—Mauricio Funes—won a close presidential contest in the Central American country last month. Funes headed a leftist party forged from a former guerilla group. Not surprisingly, the U.S. State Department objected when Funes used images of Obama in his campaign ads.
Some of the imitation may have helped candidates like Netanyahu and Funes, but taken alone it’s unlikely to win any foreign campaign an election. Significantly more important than the look is the adaption of the new online tools to fit the overseas political environment.
From Imitation to Mobilization
The leap that Israeli parties attempted this past election is one most foreign campaigns haven’t tried yet: turning these new online tools into effective vehicles for voter and volunteer mobilization. Both the Likud and Kadima parties this cycle organized supporters through texting, Twitter and Facebook, since Internet penetration is high enough for it to be a game-changer. More than half of Israelis have web access, and taking a page from the Obama campaign, both parties attempted some fairly sophisticated online outreach strategies.
Netanyahu’s website included a function that allowed volunteers to make voter calls from their homes with scripts personalized from the campaign. Volunteers then relayed the info back to headquarters, where the campaign followed up with targeted voters.
“All these tools enabled us to manage a comprehensive database,” Haddad says. The Likud campaign then used that database to contact volunteers and voters via e-mail, SMS and social networks with specific needs. “We were able to move [volunteers] to locations as needed and get campaign-related tasks done quickly,” he says. These types of activities were largely new to Israeli campaigns. If political parties in Israel are among the more advanced, parties in many other countries are just at the start of the web 2.0 evolutionary scale. Across Africa and most parts of Latin America, web infrastructure is still underdeveloped, limiting its use for campaigning. There are also vast differences in civic culture—oftentimes the same sense of volunteerism and participation that might move voters here in the U.S. doesn’t exist.
In South Africa much of the debate is over the relative lack of web access that most South Africans have. Cyril Ramaphosa, an organizer for the African National Congress—the country’s ruling party—acknowledges the conflict on the party’s blog. “There have been vast amounts of ink (and pixels) spilled about whether or not Party A or Party B is successfully copying the Obama strategy, or whether copying the Obama strategy is a good idea,” Ramaphosa writes. “But mostly the hand-wringing has been about whether political parties are engaging in exclusivist, elitist election campaigning when most South Africans don’t even have a computer.”
So why all the online bells and whistles then? In the coming years, the online tools will be central to the party’s communication and the ANC wants to be ready for it. “It is these technologies that close the gap between the ANC party leadership and the ANC members on the ground,” he concludes.
Still, differences in political systems make some online tools moot—given finance laws, many countries have little use for the small-dollar online fundraising model. In other countries, using technology for mobilization and GOTV doesn’t work either. In India, for example, parties are barred from voter communication 48 hours before voting begins. And in Australia, which legally requires citizens to vote, the concept of GOTV is all but useless. Still, there is a growing feeling that not employing some form of online outreach in your campaign is tantamount to being in the dark ages.
“Everyone wants the Obama model now,” says Will Hummel, who works international campaigns for Penn Schoen & Berland Associates. In one Eastern European
campaign Penn Schoen is advising, the firm shipped an Obama web consultant over to get the candidate’s website and social network up and running. The candidate is now using Twitter to hit back at one of his biggest weaknesses—a perception of not working hard enough—by tweeting updates from constituent meetings.
The real problem comes when foreign campaigns want to do nothing more than copy Obama—even if a web strategy isn’t smart given the campaign’s voter base. “We always caution our clients that they aren’t going to win just because they’re using these tools. You need the right message,” says Hummel, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Hummel has had to dampen the enthusiasm of more than one overseas campaign operation after polling showed tech-savvy voters shouldn’t be the campaign’s primary target. “A lot of people may be wasting a ton of money on gadgets and gizmos they might not even need to win,” he says.
In an interview with an Australian political journalist, Democratic consultant Joe Trippi put it this way: “I think there is a sense here—and in a lot of democracies—of, ‘Gosh, if we can just get our hands on those Obama tools and rub that lamp, magic will happen,’” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. The tools are the easy part.”
Post-Obama, Blue State Digital is now in high demand. “We have the tools,” says Thomas Gensemer, Blue State’s managing partner, referring to the infrastructure they cre- ated for Obama. “And those alone open up a bunch of markets.”
The firm officially opened its London office this past December and is working for a number of international clients—both political and non-political. Along with its work for Fianna Fáil, New Zealand’s Labour Party and Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, Blue State is running a U.K. political group’s online campaign against the British Nationalist Party, and a web-based PR campaign to oppose new alcohol taxes. The company is also bidding to run the British Labour Party’s online efforts, which are likely to heat up in May after the European Union elections.
Gensemer says one of the biggest hurdles in making the Obama model work elsewhere is that party leaders and campaigns can be very wary of bottom-up management. One of the biggest sources of pushback comes over the idea of small donations, which netted Obama more than $100 million.
Whether or not foreign campaigns and parties are contracting with U.S.-based web strategists, the tech lessons of the 2008 presidential race are making their way around the globe as American consultants are booked for speaking engagements and offer expertise on panels about online campaigning. In February, Blue State founder Ben Self made a series of speeches in Australia on new technology. Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign’s new media di- rector, has done the same in Ireland. Democrat Joe Trippi has also hit the circuit in Australia, recently speaking at a gathering of progressive online activists there and meeting with members of Parliament.
One of Obama’s text message gurus, Kevin Bertram, has lectured in New Delhi on the use of SMS. Strategist Joe Hansen, who worked on the Obama effort, traveled to Indonesia to school legislative candidates on the potential of the web. MSHC’s Chris Cooper, now at Knickerbocker SKD, visited Brussels and Berlin to talk about messaging through new media.
These visits, along with the widespread attention the Obama campaign has received worldwide, have given political parties in other countries the luxury of cherry-picking the best new online tools. Then, their challenge becomes adapting the U.S. model to their unique needs. But U.S.-based Republican consultant and vice president of the International Association of Political Consultants, Tom Edmonds thinks the benefit of following the Obama model will be non-existent for most foreign campaigns. “It’s possible that new technology might be the exception, but it’s very hard to take most of the techniques we use over here and apply them in other countries,” Edmonds says. “I think a lot of it is just wishful thinking and [foreign campaigns] wanting to steal a little bit of the Obama glow.”
Perhaps the biggest change—and it’s one that can be observed in Europe, South America and Africa —online appeals and websites are increasingly centered on candidates, not parties. It’s a definite break from past practice, given that parliamentary systems have traditionally promoted party over personality.
The Tools to Use
The Obama campaign’s example “has been closely followed and analyzed here,” says Peter Bihr, an online strategist for Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). One of the first things German politicos did was look for ways to replicate Obama’s success with youth. Bihr says his party’s youth campaign is all about getting the basics right: a solid contact database, a social networking presence and integration of video and blogs.
Unlike in the U.S., young voters in Germany don’t gravitate to one particular party. So there’s incentive for all parties to pour resources into developing ways to target them online. “In the United States, it only worked well for Obama,” says Hubertus Buchstein, a political science professor at the University of Greifswald. “In Germany all the parties are doing this. Young voters aren’t concentrated in only one party here. They are spread across the spectrum.”
This is the first German election cycle where websites are being seen as tools for campaigning. Fairly basic elements like a splash page and large mood images on the homepage are entirely new here. Bihr says the shift toward more Americanized models of online campaigning will be incremental, though, given the differences in political culture.
“The culture is changing,” he says. Back in 2005, Bihr worked part-time for the agency that ran the SPD’s online campaign. “When I proposed micro-donations, drawing from the Dean campaign, it was strictly vetoed. This time you will at least find small donation buttons.”
In India’s upcoming parliamentary elections, Prodyut Bora is focused on the estimated 100 million new voters expected to turn out this year. Bora is the man behind the online strategy for India’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Led by its 81-year-old leader L.K. Advani, BJP this spring is hoping to upset the country’s ruling party—the Indian National Congress.
In India’s party-based system, political appeals based on individual candidates are rare. But BJP’s campaign is staking out new ground this year. Advani’s website draws heavily from Obama’s site to brand the candidate over the party—Advani’s name displays prominently in boldface at the top of the site above the text “A lifetime of service to the nation.” In contrast, the main site for the party itself looks like something out of the late 90’s.
The biggest challenge running India’s first web-based campaign, says Bora, is voters’ relatively limited access to the Internet. “In America you have almost 100 percent Internet penetration among your citizens,” he says. “In India, we have less than 4 percent.” That amounts to about 4.5 million “netizens” in a country of more than a billion people.
Still, Bora defends the party’s online outreach strategy as a solid electoral one. “Although India’s netizens are limited, the good news is that 60 percent of them are concentrated in just eight big cities,” he explains. “In our parliamentary system, these eight cities translate to about 50 seats.” Any medium that has the potential to make even a marginal impact in 50 constituencies is well worth considering, Bora says.
An even larger aspect of this year’s campaign in India will be text messaging. While the web is limited to around 45 million of the country’s citizens, nearly 400 million have cell phones. Bora says BJP will be sending out political messages via SMS nationally, but the real action on the mobile front will be at the local level, where candidates will engage voters regionally.
In Latin America, the potential for web-based outreach depends largely on the country in question. Consultant Ralph Murphine specializes in international races and has worked dozens in Latin America. He says that while many candidates hunger to use new online techniques, the leap to voter mobilization is a long way off. Given the lack of accurate voter lists and commercially available e-mail data, says Murphine, candidates are using the web to just establish basic communication with voters.
In Ecuador, where Murphine is involved in a handful of regional campaigns, web outreach is critical given new laws that lower the voting age to 16. Their efforts are helped by the fact that nearly 70 percent of people in Ecuador have web access. “They’re not all computer owners,” Murphine explains. “But use in Internet cafes and kiosks—even in rural areas—is widespread.”
Mark Feierstein, a principal at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, says online outreach is no substitute for paid media and door-to-door campaigning, particularly throughout Latin America.
“The whole ground game is much more important there,” Feierstein says. GQRR has a long history of work throughout Latin America. This year, the firm worked El Salvador’s presidential race and is doing work in Panama as well. “Most of the campaigns use the web. They just don’t really know what to do with it.”
What specific tools will work for foreign campaigns still remains to be seen. The spring and fall of ’09 will see major international races from Latin America to Europe to Africa—and widespread use of at least rudimentary online campaign tools. If it works in one spot, the demand for and sophistication of new online models will likely grow, along with the demand for U.S.-based web strategists.
But, cautions one consultant, your campaign doesn’t need an Obama web strategist to make its online outreach work. “There are plenty of people who worked on the Obama campaign advising people to go out and implement these resources,” says a consultant who has advised international campaigns. “You have a rise of Internet con- sultants trying to sell this stuff, and I’m not sure all of them care whether or not it works.”
Without a single candidate with the ability to move the online masses, the growth of online technology in foreign campaigns is likely to evolve more gradually, with activists and campaigners pushing for subtle changes in the way their country’s political parties and voters view the world of campaigning.
On his party’s blog in South Africa, organizer Cyril Ramaphosa frames it this way: “Right now the ANC is using the party structures that have served it so well for 97 years. But we are also building our capacity to bring new Internet technologies into play—the blogs, websites, Facebook pages, Twitter channels … Right now they’re peripheral to the greater struggle, but over the next number of years they will become central.”
If many foreign campaigns grasp that concept, what’s still missing right now is the openness of the party structure. Like the '08 U.S. election demonstrated, once party leaders release the reins, the revolution in online campaigning can begin.
Shane D’Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine.