The most powerful storyline of the US election, which the fawning media did nothing to challenge, was the idea that Barack Obama was an underdog who had miraculously triumphed against a hostile establishment to make a presidential bid. In this he was rather helped by the simplistic American belief that race somehow trumps all other claims to adversity. To me this seems, well, slightly racist. If asked to choose between a) being a black editor of the Harvard Law Review or b) spending five years of my life in a small bamboo cage being tortured by some really angry North Vietnamese, I wouldn’t think long before ticking box a).
But being seen as an outsider has always been electorally useful, and more so now than ever. For if you want to tap the remarkable potential of online communities, it helps to convince people that you can’t succeed without them. That’s easier to do as an outsider candidate, since an outsider’s supporters enjoy the feeling they are changing the path of history rather than just helping to pave it. The slogan ‘Yes we can’ (shamelessly lifted from Bob the Builder) showed a true grasp of mass engagement. By contrast Hillary Clinton and John McCain (who admitted he had never used the internet) both had a de haut en bas style of campaigning left over from a time when media only went one way.
Obama’s ‘against all odds’ positioning helped his campaign raise huge sums from small donors (the supposed underdog had perhaps $300 million more to spend on advertising than the Republican, the greater part derived from individual online donations of under $300). They also enjoyed other forms of voluntary support, including great advertising created by volunteers and circulated online. These included http://snipurl.com/58vnc — a witty reprise of an old Budweiser commercial — and Sarah Silverman’s foul-mouthed but funny film urging younger Democratic Jews to make ‘The Great Schlep’ to Florida to persuade grandparents to vote Obama (http://snipurl.com/58vph). Sarah Palin’s arrival was perhaps the greatest gift of all: the day after her acceptance speech saw an extra $10 million of donations raised — for Obama. She also made for great satire: an interactive Palin Oval Office was created (you can visit it at http://snipurl.com/59mnx) showing that the last acceptable form of vicious prejudice in America is that shown by metropolitan whites towards their provincial counterparts.
This online-underdog effect is seen everywhere — in earlier successes by such pioneers as Howard Dean and even Mike Huckabee. It even reared its head again last week when an internet write-in campaign saw cult 1980s crooner Rick Astley voted ‘Best Act Ever’ at the MTV Europe Awards. The effect also explains why no large country has won Eurovision since the introduction of telephone voting and why, when Greenpeace held an internet vote to choose the name of a humpback whale, 120,000 people chose ‘Mr Splashy Pants’ over Aiko, Libertad and Aurora. (To their credit, Greenpeace accepted the result with endearing good grace — http://snipurl.com/58vxb.)
The result of all this? For years to come America may be more likely to elect a man who says ‘Yo’ than a woman who says ‘Youbetcha!’ And, back in Britain, I wonder what a party largely formed of old Etonians can do to avoid looking like overdogs.