The "first Internet president" has a major thing going for him—the ability to individualize the voter's experience.
The 2012 election season has officially begun, and like every incumbent, Obama and his campaign need to sell two Baracks: one for the base, and one for the swing voters. But a lot has changed since the last incumbent ran back in 2004. The digital divide has never been sharper. Personalization is the new curation, thanks to YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and all the rest. And judging by Obama's first few major campaign moves, he's going to take full advantage of the opportunity to tailor his message to his audience.
"You guys will be the backbone of this campaign," Obama told YouTube viewers backstage at a rally at Ohio State University on Saturday, just before delivering the closest thing to real talk an incumbent president is permitted to muster during a campaign speech. In 40 minutes, he laid out the narrative: us versus them, hard-working Americans versus greedy CEOs—and a candidate, Mitt Romney, who has rich people's backs, who "sincerely believes that if CEOs and wealthy investors like him make money, the rest of us will automatically prosper as well." Obama vowed to make college affordable and accessible, decried tax cuts for millionaires, talked about protecting women's reproductive rights and unions and the EPA. He talked about our lives. "Corporations aren't people," he said. "People are people."
"Base" Obama was a class warrior. He talked about the future and what he wants for it. Then his staff took to YouTube and put up clips of that rally. They put a quote on Pinterest and Tumblr: "We are moving this country forward." The Obama campaign undoubtedly remembers that viral videos and memes got young people and people of color fired up in 2008. They know they need to recreate that energy again—now with even more online avenues at their disposal—if they have any hope of winning back those voters.
Just two days later, the campaign released an ad with an entirely different tone, which is scheduled to air in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, and Colorado.
This ad is pure "swing voter" Obama. There's nary a whiff of the class warrior from the Columbus rally. Instead, the ad spends 15 seconds reminding voters that the economic crisis is George W. Bush's fault, then cherry-picks Obama's accomplishments: the killing of Osama bin Laden, the end of the Iraq war, the jobs he's created, and the resurrection of the auto industry. In other words, action that fares well in national polls. The first two achievements are done, with no continuous future goals. There was no mention of the financial regulations he touted Saturday night, lest Wall Street is watching. No mention of raising taxes on the rich. No mention of the health care law, whose fate is in the Supreme Court's hands and on which the public is split.
Lucky for the Obama campaign, most swing voters skittish about the health care law will never decipher the new series of health care-focused Spanish-language ads meant to coax Hispanic voters to the ballot box (Obama has a sizable lead over Romney among Latinos). And the young voters he needs to convince to go to the polls will probably never see that safe, wimpy campaign ad about Osama and Michigan, either. The "first Internet president" has one major thing going for him: the ability to individualize the voter's experience. Incumbents have always had to make different ads for their shoo-in supporters and the so-called "regular voters," but they all aired on television. They didn't have much control over who saw them. That's all changed—people have more choices than ever about where they get their news, and the spread of information among young people is determined by sharing, not advertising. Obama is going to have a hard time drumming up the fervent support of his base in 2008, but at least he doesn't have to put all his eggs in one basket. He can place them where he wants people to find them.