Saturday, November 8, 2008

Who Made the Most Difference on Election Day?

Andrew Keen's latest post to his Great Seduction blog posed the question "Did the Internet elect Barack Obama?" This is the sort of writing that draws me to his blog in the first place. He takes all the many truisms that spring up out of the fertile soil (less polite metaphors may be more appropriate) of Internet evangelism and tries to impose his own modest sense of reality. However, rather than my trying to analyze Keen's arguments on this topic, I would prefer to just lay out my own.

Once again, I find a need to counter the evangelical claptrap with the phraseology of the National Rifle Association: The Internet did not elect Obama; people elected Obama. All of the rose-colored speculations about the roles of new technologies are all very well and good. However, they may distract from the more important question: Who actually voted for Obama? This is not a frivolous question, since, once again, this was an election in which the popular vote was almost evenly divided. It is thus important to try to identify those factors that tipped the balance, even if ever so subtly, in Obama's favor.

In this respect the Thursday San Francisco Chronicle provided an interesting visualization of data. The data source was a CNN exit poll with a sample size of 17,536. The respondents were sorted according to the categories of Sex, Age, Annual Income, Independents, and First-Time Voters. As I see it, the best way to read these data is to try to identify where Obama's strengths were. The First-Time Voters category was clearly a source, with 69% of them voting for him; but this only raises other questions. Who were those first-time voters; and how were they persuaded to vote for the first time?

To answer these questions, we need to look at the breakdown of the Age and Annual Income categories. Obama's edge among the young (68%) is almost as high as his lead with First-Time Voters. So it is probably important that many of those first-time voters were young, from which it would then be valid to ask how many of them were persuaded to vote through the Internet.

On the other hand Obama's greatest strength in all the categories was among those with an annual income under $15,000: 73%. These are the people who have suffered the most under the current Administration and whose need for change may best be described as an aching pain. For them the choice between Obama and McCain for "pain relief" was a no-brainer; and I doubt that the Internet played much of a role in either delivering that message or persuading them to vote for the first time. As I see it, this particular statistic testifies to Obama taking his community organizing skills and deploying them on a larger scale; and, as is the case in most community organizing efforts, the Internet might be nice to have for support but really does not signify among the grass roots that matter the most. Indeed, from this point of view, the Republican Party may have fatally shot itself in the foot by subjecting the very spirit of community organizing to so much ridicule during its Convention.

If we were to apply the categories of the Academy Awards, the Internet would probably be a good candidate for Supporting Actor. However, the role that mattered most was shared among all those skilled in the social mechanics of community organizing. I for one believe that those same mechanics will play the strongest role in helping Obama fulfill his promises to clean up the many messes that the Bush Administration has left for him. From this point of view, I really have trouble fathoming just what Google CEO Eric Schmidt is doing up there in Obama's team of economic advisers! The best advice right now has less to do with summoning "all the world's information" and everything to do with getting back to those people at the heart of the "real economy."

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