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Obama and Paul: The Kings of the Web Election

There’s no question this year that Barack Obama and Ron Paul are the kings of US politics on the Internet. They both command the lion’s share of their party’s attention online and seem to dominate social networking and social media sites. So why is only one of those campaigns actually working? How come only Obama has been able to translate his online success to success at the polls? We thought we’d take a brief look today at the Obama campaign and why it has been successful, while citizens in 24 US states head to the polls as part of “Super Tuesday.”

UPDATE: Also check out Keeping Tabs on Super Tuesday, our guide to following Super Tuesday via the Internet.

Last week Obama’s campaign announced that it had raised $32 million in January alone, a record $28 million online — more than Howard Dean raised in his entire 2004 campaign. Twice this campaign cycle, Ron Paul has set single day fundraising records. If anything, the power of online fundraising has been proved many times over during this election.

Looking over Obama’s numbers, we see that an overwhelming amount of that $28 million was via small donations — 90% under $100 each. 10,000 people gave between $5 and $10. That’s a whole new paradigm for fundraising. Rather than chase $2,300 checks from a few hundred rich people at lavish fundraisers (okay, they still do that), campaigns can more easily focus on collecting thousands of smaller donations from regular people that add up to the same amount (or more).

Further, 10,000 donations under $10 means the email addresses of 10,000 people who can still give more money later. About half of Hilary Clinton’s money came from “maxed out” voters compared to just about one third for Obama. That gives Obama a much larger pool of donors to hit up for more cash and to put on notice for get out the vote campaigns.

Though I am loathe to agree with Karl Rove, he’s right about how the Internet is affecting campaign fundraising. “The Internet dramatically shortens the gap between political success and raising money,” he wrote. “Today, if you do well in a debate on Tuesday night you can begin raising large sums of money Wednesday morning. Effective fundraising can be a mouse-click away.”

That’s something that nearly all of the campaigns are doing. Within hours after Obama’s win in South Carolina, his campaign had dispatched emails to supporters pitching for donations. However, raising money doesn’t win elections. “Raising the most amount of money by no means assures you of winning the presidential primary,” says former chairman of the Federal Election Commission Michael Toner. And for Paul, money and online popularity hasn’t translated into votes. For Obama, though, arguably his online success has had an impact at the polls.

The reason may be in get out the vote efforts of each party. Both Paul and Obama, with their anti-war stances and Internet savvy, are attractive to young voters. But only the Democrats are succeeding in getting young people to the voting booths. In Iowa, exit polls showed 40% of voters under the age of 44, and Obama killed in those demographics. On the Republican side, just 26% of voters were under 44. That picture was repeated in other early primary states.

Incidentally, this is also potentially the reason that Mike Huckabee has faded as well — he appeals to young people with, as one South Carolina paper writes, “his celebrity supporters, preacher’s gift for humor and skill with an electric guitar.”

The Democrats are succeeding with young people because they are targeting young people and they are using the Internet to successfully microtarget and rally their base. The Obama campaign, for example, uses sophisticated targeting tools that let them send specially tailored campaign materials to each voter. Firm supporters get a different email than those on the fence.

Other progressive organizations are using similar tools. One is called Catalist. It is used by large progressive organizations like MoveOn and the AFL-CIO to microtarget their campaigns. According to Tony DeYoung of Catalyst Resources (unrelated to Catalist — Catalyst is a design firm that was contracted by Catalist to redesign the UI of their “Q-Tool” software), Catalist utilizes “on-demand data analysis services to help Democratics microtarget in their voter outreach efforts. Microtargeting uses sophisticated computer models regularly used in commercial marketing, which helps campaigns to locate sympathetic voters and target them with individually tailored messages on issues that are predicted to be most important to them.”

This is the same technique the Republicans employed to great effect in 2004 to get out messages to conservative evangelical Christian voters — who this election cycle don’t have a clear cut favorite among the front runners. Which may explain why their get out the vote efforts aren’t working as well this time around.

So while both Obama and Paul are running effective online campaigns, albeit in different ways, the get out the vote efforts of the Democrats, which target young people, play to Obama’s strength. While strong turnout by voters over the age of 45 have played to John McCain on the Republican side.

Related:Keeping Tabs on Super Tuesday

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