The last few installments of Technology Bytes have focused on the specific tools of online politics. This issue, I’d like to get out of the weeds a bit and think about some larger issues, starting with the biggest question of all for 2012: Is the Obama machine built for reelection?

Barack Obama’s 2008 online campaign was absolutely unprecedented in scale and effectiveness. Two numbers tell the story: 13 million people were on his email list, and he raised more than $500 million online. Of those online supporters, more than 3 million donated money and 2 million took the extra step of creating an account on the MyBarackObama online toolkit/social network. No previous campaign had even come close to this scale of citizen involvement in a campaign.

But that was when Obama was more than a politician. That was when he represented a movement. “Hope” and “Change” may have been vague ideas, but they meant something to his supporters, and the candidate himself rose above the dreary plane of politics to become a defining cultural figure, at least for a moment. Republicans may have mocked the messianic air that surrounded him in the summer of 2008, but it was a real phenomenon—and his campaign used digital technologies remarkably well to harness that enthusiasm and put it to work in practical ways.

Four years later, the picture’s murkier. Spend some time in liberal circles—or just read a few lefty blogs—and you’ll run into plenty of disgruntled former Obama supporters. “Sellout” is one of the nicer words you hear, and it’s easy to get the impression that the fervor that helped propel him to the White House has evaporated.

But polling consistently shows that Obama remains popular with the Democratic base, regardless of criticism from the “professional left.” Though many of his 2008 followers have dropped off, many others have stepped in to take their places. Nearly half of his donors in 2011 were new to the campaign.

Plus, the campaign has enlisted staff and volunteers to make phone calls by the millions to past supporters, and is now investing heavily in data-mining, in part to help locate those who have changed addresses or otherwise dropped off the list.

The campaign is also spending heavily to rebuild his base and create the infrastructure to re-launch the massive online-enabled grassroots turnout operation that helped deliver victories in battleground states in 2008. In January alone, the campaign spent $4.3 million on digital ads and $3 million on staff—the former to build the list, the latter to get ready to put it to work.

If November turns out to be close, his turnout machine may swing enough states to help him squeak by (if a Republican challenger is far ahead, a grassroots operation alone probably won’t make much of a difference). But if the Democrats are dominating in a serious way, look for the influence of Obama’s online-organized army of supporters on close races for the House and Senate. 

Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award winning Epolitics.com, a fifteen-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at cpd@epolitics.com

Also in Technology Bytes this issue: Politics is going visual