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Timing + Charisma + Internet = Obama Nomination

By Blake D. Dvorak

Books will be written about how Barack Obama unseated the Clintons for control of the Democratic Party. Readers will have to wait for that story to end, however, before seeing them on the shelves. For now what the pundits will focus on are the particulars of the story. What was the winning strategy? What mistakes did Hillary make but Obama avoided? Is the party too riven for victory in November?

One thing we know already is that Obama owes much of his victory to good timing. The moment Obama hit the stage was one when the Democratic Party was changing: It was shifting farther left, noticeably away from the centrism of the Clintons; it was still reeling from two consecutive defeats at the presidential level, which many blamed on the party elites for offering less-than-inspiring candidates; and it was growing more sure in its ideological convictions as it saw a Republican Party, whose brand was being destroyed by an unpopular war and a faltering economy, with little sense of where to go after President Bush.

Quite simply, Democrats, encouraged by the political landscape, were ready for someone ideologically pure but also new and inspiring. Obama gave that to them with a rhetorical flourish not seen since JFK.

Yet for all that, freshman senators with undistinguished careers aren't normally considered presidential material. Obama had to get noticed by -- and demand respect from -- the power holders and the king makers of the party to make it through the grueling months of nothingness that marked early 2007.

Obama did this by raising an astonishing $58 million during the first half of the year, shattering the previous record. But what really scared the Clinton campaign were the 202,000 donors who had contributed less than $200 in this period. According to the Politico, these small donors amounted to $16.4 million of Obama's $58 million total, or 29 percent. In contrast, small donors to Clinton's campaign contributed just $4 million in the first half of the year. So, not only could Obama's army of small donors contribute again and again, but they represented a grassroots organization never before seen in presidential politics.

Where did these donors come from and how did a freshman senator get them? There are many explanations, but perhaps the best is, again, simply good timing. In 2003, Howard Dean showed the power of the Internet in organizing a grassroots campaign. Suddenly a candidate had the ability to build a community of supporters that existed beyond one's local constituency - the greatest single obstacle to a unknown candidate. Organized by party activists, these online communities could pass information about their candidate seamlessly from anywhere in the country, bringing in even more supporters.

Obama clearly sought to benefit from the path Dean blazed but could not fully exploit. But what he couldn't have anticipated was the response to his gifts as a charismatic politician. Again, the Internet harnessed this enthusiasm in new and unique ways: YouTubes from grassroots supporters like the "1984" mash-up and "Obama Girl" helped generate and sustain buzz about his candidacy and chatter in the media. Money continued to flood in.

As Obama told Time recently, "What I didn't anticipate was how effectively we could use the Internet to harness that grassroots base, both on the financial side and the organizing side,... That, I think, was probably one of the biggest surprises of the campaign, just how powerfully our message merged with the social networking and the power of the Internet."

We've seen something like this phenomenon before. During the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, it was Kennedy who was declared the winner by the viewing audience. Nixon, however, was declared the winner by the listening audience. The difference of course was strictly cosmetic: The youthful Kennedy, who took the time to put on makeup, against the dour Nixon, whose sweating and shadowed face made for an unwholesome image. What the episode revealed was that a dramatic shift had just occurred in politics where performance and theatrics were no longer confined to eye-witnesses. With the Internet, Obama represents another major shift.

Add to this new technology the growing influence of the activist bloggers, a somewhat different subset than the online communities Obama was forming. The netroots, especially during the early primary, were increasingly playing a role in shaping some of what the mainstream media chose to focus on. It was those bloggers who saw Obama's appeal and it was they who began writing about him, if not quite supporting him. In turn those conversations trickled up toward the media, which, fortunately for Obama, not only leans left but is always susceptible to politicians with great rhetorical charm and a potential Cinderella story.

Now take away the Internet. Would Obama have emerged on the national stage anyway? At least Dean had been a governor. The answer is yes, eventually. We shouldn't discount Obama's many political talents, without which he would have flamed out rather quickly. Indeed, this was what the Clinton campaign initially believed.

But almost certainly it would have taken longer for Obama's star to rise. The danger is that, whenever it might have happened, the alignment of the party as well as the political landscape of the country could very well have shifted away from him.

Consider, for example, that in October 1964 Ronald Reagan delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his career on behalf of Barry Goldwater. But for all the speech's potency and heralding of a new talent on the national scene, it would be another 16 years before the Republican Party gave Reagan the nomination. How different it might have been if Reagan had had the benefit of the Internet to grow his support following Goldwater's spectacular defeat.

Nevertheless, it worked out for Reagan in the end. We can't say the same for Obama yet. There still exists the possibility that the Internet's historic role in Obama's candidacy may turn out to be a weakness in the end. It could be that it helped propel him too high, too fast, and may have falsely convinced Democrats that a first term senator who just five years ago was sitting in the Illinois legislature could actually win the highest office in the land. We'll know the answer to that question in early November.

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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