Text Me: Obama, the Media & the Campaign

by Jeff Siegel

Barack Obama's text message, announcing Joe Biden as his running mate, arrived on cell phones in Dallas at around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 23. Which doesn't seem like a very smart time to make a vice presidential announcement.

Unless, of course, you're trying to do something else.

By every measure of traditional media punditry, Obama's handling of the vice presidential announcement made no sense. He did it in the middle of the night, on a weekend, and too close to the convention. The conventional wisdom says Sen. Obama (D-IL) should have done it Wednesday or Thursday, which would have allowed the campaign to dominate the weekday news for three days before the convention. By doing it this way, Obama doesn't get any weekday publicity at all.

So what was the campaign up to? Consider these explanations:

• Putting the media in their place. The text shows the media that the campaign doesn't need them to get its message across. I was drinking beer Friday afternoon, and a woman at the bar kept clicking her cell phone. What was she doing? Checking for the Obama announcement.

• Managing the media. Here, the Obamas have learned from the Bush Administration. One reason why the reporting from Iraq has been so slipshod is that it has been managed so well, from the embedded journalists to restrictions on photos to military harrassment of reporters and photographers. The text accomplishes the same thing. If you show the media that you don't need them, the media will try harder to get the special favors and privileges that they are used to getting. Which means softer, more favorable coverage.

• Demonstrating its point of difference vs. the Republicans. Does Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) even know what a text message is (let alone ever sent one)? The Obamas' mantra is change, and the text is one way to show that. We're 21st century, we're hip, we're cool — not like those Republican old men.

This is going to be a completely different presidential campaign than any previous campaign, and not just because Obama isn't Anglo. It will almost certainly be the first post-modern campaign, in which the beliefs and wisdom that ran campaigns during the TV era (dating from the first televised conventions in 1952) won't be nearly as important. It won't matter as much what voters see on the network news, the cable news channels, or TV commercials, because there are so many other ways to get information. One series of e-mail blasts could accomplish, for a fraction of the cost, what a tradtional TV ad campaign does now.

And, for all of their other weaknesses, the Obamas understand this difference, as their success in internet fundraising has shown. It doesn't mean that the text was a good idea or that it worked. It means that they have a plan — something that the media and a lot of people have never credited them with having.

For more background on the 2008 campaign, please see these archival posts:

(The photo of Sen. Barack Obama addressing a campaign rally in March at American University in Washington, D.C. is by Shanda Wilson via Flickr, using a Creative Commons License.)

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Eulalia said...

I think Obama's campaign is a really innovative one and thus, pretty appealing to young voters. People feel involved, and that's what makes the campaign successful.

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