Well, it turns out that things aren’t always quite as “democratized” as they appear in the new world of campaign politics. The day after Sen. Barack Obama shrugged his shoulders at the advent of a new anti-Hillary internet ad, the guy who made the ad came forward. Turns out he worked for Obama’s internet-services vendor – a firm called Blue State Digital.
While the producer of the now-famous “Big Sister” ad said that he did the emotionally powerful hit piece on his own time – at home, on his Apple laptop, and even though he quit his job once his role was disclosed – his proximity to the real Obama campaign allowed Sen. Hillary Clinton’s camp to raise questions (most of them in private, so far) about their chief rival’s ethical purity.
Moral of the story: the wild, ungovernable Internet giveth – and taketh away. In this case, it spawned the most effective anti-Hillary ad so far in the early campaign season, but it also caused the Obama campaign a headache it didn’t need.
Here’s another example. Obama’s story, told in his books and on the campaign trail, is that he proudly chose to identify with the African-American half of his parentage and that he is a Christian, and only a Christian. Yet if you click on his “official” Myspace page, and read his personal profile, you see his ethnicity described as “Other” and his religion as “Christian – other.”
I contacted the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago to find out what was going on. Bottom line after a number of calls and emails: The site was not “official” – even though it is dotted with links to the campaign and run by a “volunteer” they know.
Obama didn’t write his entry (I doubt that any candidates do). It was put together by the volunteer, whom the campaign had contacted after my inquiry. “We’ve emailed him to help him correct it,” said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman in Chicago. “If the senator had written it himself, he of course would have said `African American’ and `member of the United Church of Christ.’” (The site has since changed Obama's ethnicity to "Ethnicity: Black / African descent" but, as of this writing, still lists "Religion: Christian - other".)
“Being a grassroots campaign,” Burton added, “means there is a lot of independent activity out there.”
Small matter? Hardly.
Last time I checked, Myspace, by far the leading social networking blogosphere, had more than 60 million registered members. And the misbegotten Myspace profile is just one more example of something profound that has happened to what we used to call “campaigning.”
The candidates don’t really control it anymore. It is not something they do, it is something that is done to them. They have to learn to ride the beast like a Fremen riding a sandworm in “Dune.” If they master it, they can speed across the desert; oblivion awaits the unskilled.
Here is why this is happening:
1. Independent big money. It is not a vast oversimplification to say that the race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton could come down to a steel cage death match between David Geffen (Obama) and Rom Burkle (Hillary). The two L.A.-based billionaires are ferocious infighters in their respective ferocious businesses (movies and supermarkets, respectively), and they don’t like to lose. Under current law, they can spend AS MUCH AS THEY WANT, as long as they do it “independently” of the campaigns themselves. If they wanted to, they and a few other fat cats could match, even exceed, the amount of money raised and spent by the campaigns themselves.
2. The calendar. All campaigns, Republican and Democrat, will be tapped out come mid-February, when the nominations are likely to have been decided in the Supernova Tuesday primaries. The yawning distance between that moment and the conventions is wider than ever before – at least SIX MONTHS! This middle chapter of the movie becomes longer and more crucial each quadrennium. What will occupy it? The world of uncontrolled campaign.
3. Technology. The real “democratization” is not just the internet itself, which in politics began with Howard Dean’s campaign in 2003 and with its guru, Joe Trippi. We’ve now moved to two higher levels as the pipe widens with optical fiber. First, images captured by cell phones and video cameras: Macaca. As of this week, a new watershed was reached: professional-level ads that used to be the province of “media consultants” in darkened studios full of high-priced gear. Digital graphics and video have been democratized. The stunning result: the anonymously produced, “Big Sister” anti-Hillary attack ad. Posted on YouTube, it had received more than a million hits in a week. It turns out, of course, that the ad was not really an amateur production: Philip de Vellis, who admitted to making it, was a professional graphics tech who worked for a company specializing in political campaigns. But he did it on his own time, he said, and with his own laptop.
4. Next: Geffen and “Big Sister.” Whoever made the “Big Sister” ad has talent, big time. Like the sledge hammer in the ad, it blows up a central web-based sales pitch of the Hillary campaign: that she is just another mom (though a brainy, accomplished one) who wants to have a “chat” with you over a cup of coffee in the kitchen. The ad is deeply antagonistic, personal – and powerful emotional propaganda. Imagine that production team with, say, Geffen’s backing. Very potent stuff.