Obama's 'Cybergenic' Edge

How McCain and Obama operate in cyberspace could determine election's outcome.

ByABC News
June 11, 2008, 12:30 PM

June 11, 2008 — -- Ever since a youthful John F. Kennedy bested a haggard Richard Nixon in the 1960 TV debates, it has been a political axiom that successful candidates must be "mediagenic" able to reach through a TV camera and grab the attention and votes of passive viewers.

It still matters in this election, but it is no longer sufficient to just be TV mediagenic, for the political center of gravity is shifting from the waning mass media world of TV to the emergent personal media world of the Web and cyberspace. To win, candidates must now be "cybergenic" able to surf, blog, IM and twitter their way into the hearts of activist "netizens."

Hillary Clinton lost to Obama because her campaign didn't take cyberspace seriously. In early 2007, I found myself at a dinner with Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn and, asking him about his cyber-strategy, I was astounded to hear him scorn the idea that Hillary would ever blog. Perhaps if she had, the race would have played out differently.

The problem is that Clinton and her staff were so steeped in mass media thinking they didn't realize that a new personal media world had arrived. In contrast, the Obama campaign was quick to colonize cyberspace, eagerly taking a page from Howard Dean's innovative 2004 presidential run.

Just as Dean leveraged the Web to shatter fundraising records, Obama's campaign reached across cyberspace for dollars as well as mind-share and raced past one candidate after another to the Democratic nomination.

Technologies have long transformed politics, and the first politicians to appreciate a new technology's potential typically enjoy a huge first-mover advantage.

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously made radio his medium with his Depression-era "Fireside Chats" of the 1930s, and Kennedy rode TV into the presidency, leaving more experienced politicians in the dust. Lyndon Johnson launched his post-war political career by helicopter, barnstorming Texas in a tiny Bell 47 whirlybird, literally flying rings around the competition to win a tightly contested three-way primary and ultimately the Senate seat.