24th Mar 2018

European lessons from the web-victory of Obama 08

The American presidential election today will go down in history as the first where the internet was used for all it is worth. As many as 20 million Americans have voted even before ballot boxes open on Tuesday (4 November), and voter turnout is expected to end up higher than in decades.

Of course, many African-Americans are extraordinarily motivated to vote by the possibility of having a black man elected president of the world's most powerful nation.

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  • The motivation for millions of Americans is the hope of change, something the European Parliament cannot deliver. (Photo: EUobserver)

"I never thought I would live to see something like this happening," one elderly black woman told me when I was walking the streets of Laconia in New Hampshire last week with students who were canvassing for Mr Obama.

In some areas, voters have had to wait up to nine hours to cast their ballot, with many being brought into the political process for the first time. Many people in the US are on a mission today.

How did it happen, how did Mr Obama succeed in activating people to such an extent? What could the European Union, fighting to win the attention of its own citizens in upcoming European elections learn from their American cousins?

One reason for the American electoral success is the very clever use of new media and computer technology to support the election process. The websites of the presidential candidates have become the key hub for the release of all major news in the campaigns.

Information was no longer being announced via press conferences and then broadcasted by the media, but directly released to the public via the websites: and

Using the internet

In particular the Obama campaign has succeeded in using the internet to organise supporters and to reach voters who no longer rely primarily on information from traditional newspapers and television.

The tools ranged from online video service YouTube, which did not exist in the last election in 2004, blogs, and even SMS messages reminding people to vote or offering them a lift if needed.

The Obama campaign also benefited from the so-called Long Tail effect of the web, and raised more campaign cash than anyone before with almost half of the money coming from people donating $200 or less.

A central database was built with information on most households in the US, including information about the number of people in each family, age, sex and willingness to support the campaign of Obama.

Most of this info was gathered by volunteers walking from house to house, knocking on peoples doors while armed with a canvass tally sheet.

"Hi, is Mr Sullivan available? My name is Liz Sealock and I'm a volunteer talking to voters about Barack Obama. How are you today?"

Back in the campaign office, results from every single house-hold visited was typed carefully into the central database: The man in Pleasant Street is a solid McCain supporter but his wife leaning towards Obama.

"This is her mobile phone number? Would she like a yard sign for her garden? Would she want to be contacted again? Would she want to make a donation?"

If nobody was found at home, that would be noted down too – and the house visited again some other day. The canvassing teams were carefully instructed to act appropriately and respectfully. Identifying a clear-cut McCain voter would be just as important as meeting an Obama supporter, but the sales pitch would change.

Back in the campaign office, the canvassing students would check the latest news on the elections: visiting websites such as Huffington Post, a news service build entirely on user-generated content, and poll analysis blog Five Thirty Eight.

Five Thirty Eight, named after the number of votes in the electoral college that formally elects the American president, was established by a baseball statistician who has instead of gathering baseball statistics, been systematically collating and analysing polls ahead of the elections.

The site also includes good tips on betting in relation to the elections.

European elections

Struggling to gain the attention of its citizens, the European Parliament is at great risk of seeing another turnout below 40 percent in the upcoming 2009 elections.

What could Europe learn from the 2008 American elections? First of all, the detailed registration of people's political opinions would not be legal under European data law.

Additionally, the motivation for millions of Americans is the hope of change, something the European Parliament cannot deliver, no matter how many Europeans go and vote.

The European Parliament is not in charge of presenting laws, only capable of influencing them. And Europeans are not asked to deliver an opinion on the election of their president of the European Commission. Real passion about European affairs has only been seen in the three referendums on the Constitution and Lisbon Treaty, but as they resulted in No votes, they have hardly been taken note of as models for participation.

It will take more than an Obama 08 campaign to make European elections into a real act of democratic decision-making - something that European citizens could actually get passionate about.

The author is editor-in-chief of the EUobserver

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