Is Obama v. Clinton Really Style v. Substance? Or Is the Internet Changing Another Facet of Campaigning?

Unsurprisingly, Clinton has sought to portray Obama as mostly oratory style rather than substance. Whereas Obama may give uplifting speeches, she tells crowds, she is the one with the command of the facts and the true knowledge of policy. Clinton backs this up by giving well researched specifics and detailed policy recommendations in her stump speeches and in her debate appearances.

Also unsurprisingly, the herd beasts of punditryland in their never ending quest for simplistic themes that nicely boil down to “X v. Y” arguments have gobbled this up with a spoon. We hear constantly either about how Obama will need to show he has the same command of the facts, or how voters are more in the mood for change than for experience, and on and on and on.

I will humbly suggest, however, that what Obama has done is to match his message to the medium. He has put the details on his website for folks interested in specific issues. But when speaking in the context of a mass medium (huge rally, television appearance), he makes his broader campaign appeal.

Other candidates have done this in the past. But I believe we have now hit a sufficient critical mass on the wider availability and greater use of the Internet as a tool to become an effective campaign strategy. This relates back to my earlier observations on the interplay between the internet and the traditional mass media. I would love to see some actual empirical research on the subject. But my speculations based on what I know now below. . .

As I have said before, the internet does not “replace” old media in usefulness and importance. Rather, access to the internet (particularly broadband) adds new capabilities that add new dimensions and change the way people relate to other forms of media. When television came along, many predicted the death of radio. It didn’t happen. Certain kinds of radio programming did move from radio to television — such as dramas and sitcoms — but new formats developed on radio that better matched the new ways people used radio.

We have seen this pattern with the internet as part of campaigning. And Obama has figured out how to exploit both the potential of the internet for more substantive communication and the greater ability and willingness of people to use the internet for political research and civic engagement to overcome a the limitations of the mass media in projecting “wonkiness.” Obama has managed to capture the “Goldilocks” “just right” mix between traditional media and new media. By contrast, Clinton has never mastered the use of the internet in the same fashion for organization, fundraising, and information disemination, and Edwards never managed to capture sufficient mainstream media attention to break out beyond his internet base.

Supposedly, Obama lacks a mastery of the details and relies on the power of inspiration, while Clinton is the ultimate policy wonk with the facts and well developed policies at her fingertips so she is prepared “on Day 1.” Or, less kindly, Obama is an “empty suit” and all sizzle while Clinton has the real goods. But there are serious problems with this construct. How, in the same breath, can so many pundits say “there isn’t a heck of a lot of difference between Clinton and Obama on healthcare (or other issues)” if Obama has no details out there? Indeed, in my own area of expertise, the exceedingly wonky broadband/technology segement of policy, numerous progressives consider Clinton a lot less detailed or substantial than Obama.

Rather, what we see here is Obama pushing his message and expecting those interested in specific policy areas — be they healthcare, housing, or “innovation,” — to follow up online. The general message, “I’m the candidate of change and all that” goes to the general audience. Everyone can find it appealing, and if you don’t then you aren’t voting for Obama no mater how many statistics about foreclosure he can quote. What Obama counts on is the willingness and ability of people to move from that first contact to “yeah, but where is Obama on my issue? I’ll go check it out online.” At which point, folks interested can either download the 15 page white paper from Obama’s website, or read any of a number of specialty sites that summarize the policy differences between the candidates.

It’s a risky strategy, in that it depends on people being motivated enough to move beyond the mainstream media surface and actually do a little digging. Fortunately for Obama, this appears to be the year an increasing number of people are making the jump from couch potato to citizen. Part of that change is the greater penetration of broadband into homes and the overall increased habit of people to use the internet as a research tool for major life decisions (a trend tracked by the PEW Internet & American Life Project). In this regard, it is worth noting that (excluding African Americans), Obama’s chief constituencies are those most likely to have broadband access and most likely to be early adopters/heavy users of broadband services: college students and upper income whites with college or post-college degrees. By contrast, the Clinton demographic constituencies most cited by the news media — working class whites and Latinos — have the lowest rates of broadband penetration into the home.

It is pure speculation, but fertile ground for follow up research, the extent to which the Obama buzz from his primary victories is prompting greater numbers of people from the “low internet user” demographics to use the internet for supplementary research, explaining the recent inroads made by the Obama campaign into “Clinton’s” demographic base. Are these folks who have become curious enough to look beyond the mainstream media, go online, and discover that Obama really is more “substantive” than they had supposed? I’d love to see some follow up empirical survey research on this point.

But even without this last tidbit, I think the increasing reliance on the internet for research by citizens genuinely excited about the primary and weighing their choices carefully helps explain why the mainstream media “frame” of Obama as all sizzle and Clinton as all steak just doesn’t hold water. One can counter that these white papers are written by committees of experts. Of course they are. No modern President can survive trying to be the ultimate authority on all things. Bill Clinton nearly killed himself and became a serious bottleneck in the early days of his own administration trying to keep up with everything that needed intense expertise to even understand the problem. Whoever is President, Clinton or Obama or McCain, will have loads of policy experts and advisers. The question is how well does the President understand the fundamentals of each briefing and can the President absorb enough to genuinely make decisions rather than merely being the tool of advisers.

Given the way Obama has handled himself in interviews and in debates, he appears quite capable and comfortable getting into the nitty-gritty on policy stuff. I have no doubt he and I could get together to chat about tech policy and telecom and have a swingin’ time. But why should the rest of America need to sit through that conversation when they have no interest in the subject? So rather than try to have a conversation with me (and the people like me) at every stump speech, we get the general Obama speech and an invitation to continue research online. That gives Obama the platform to be generally engaging, while still showing the policy wonks he’s got what it takes.

As I say, it’s a risky strategy, made possible by the changes in the way people use the internet to supplement (rather than replace) the traditional media. Edwards, for all his internet savvy and internet following, never got enough mainstream media attention to get that second look. Meanwhile, however, Clinton is relying entirely on mainstream media to show her command of the issues, disdaining to engage in broad “rhetorical flourishes” and thus losing the opportunity to inspire on the general stage.

Stay tuned . . . .

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