Eric Johnson

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Obama Adds to Online Presidential Milestones With Reddit AMA

In only a few election cycles, political campaigning online has changed dramatically, a fact underscored by President Barack Obama’s “Ask Me Anything” Q&A on Reddit Wednesday afternoon.

President Obama is not the first well-known name to do an AMA on Reddit, which has hosted guests ranging from Bill Nye the Science Guy to Larry King to (infamously) actor Woody Harrelson.

With apologies to Larry King fans, though, he is easily the most powerful and influential person to do an AMA, and one of only a few American politicians (a group that includes former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who stopped by before his little Twitter scandal).

President Obama already has a strong track record with the Web, building a groundbreaking online campaign in 2008 that arguably secured his edge over competitors in both the primaries and the general election.

Only 20 years ago, a political campaigner reaching voters as President Obama did Wednesday would have been completely unusual. In 1992, the University of Southern California harnessed the pre-Web Internet to print out candidates’ speeches and position papers and distribute them to students.

The White House didn’t have a Web site at all then. In 1994, the Clinton-Gore administration debuted this official site, which looked like this by the end of Clinton’s second term.

By 1996, all major presidential candidates had at least some presence on the Web, posting static collections of speeches, position papers and so on.

However, despite a budding audience for news online, researcher Rita Kirk Whillock found that the Internet “did not have a significant impact” on former President Clinton’s re-election, with less than one percent of voters saying they got most of their political information online.

President Clinton won that election with a more than 8 percent lead over Republican candidate Sen. Bob Dole. And as the Senate Web site boasted, his 1997 inauguration was the first to be streamed live online.

With increased political activity online (not to mention an election without an incumbent in the race), the 2000 presidential campaign did not live up to watchers’ expectations for how candidates would use the Internet.

Perhaps the biggest tech story from that year was Sen. John McCain’s supporters contributing $2.2 million online to his Republican primary campaign.

(In 2008, in contrast, President Obama raised more than 200 times as much — or $500 million — from his online backers.)

Later that year, former President George W. Bush coined the term “Internets,” and there was much rejoicing. While he was in office, though, Bush’s footprint online was much smaller than that of potential rival politicians such as Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who raised twice as much early campaign money online as the Democrats’ eventual 2004 nominee, Sen. John Kerry.

Dean’s not-quite-successful use of to rally voters around his candidacy in 2004 foreshadowed President Obama’s more fruitful run at the White House in 2008.

By then, the social Web had come into its own, and his campaign used to drive not just donations and rallies, but also online word-of-mouth buzz that propagated through supporters’ social networks.

It wasn’t until after President Bush left office in 2009 that his online profile went up slightly. Although he has kept fairly quiet in his time out of the Oval Office, he went on YouTube in 2010 to thank viewers with an “inaugural address” for his Facebook page.

At the same time, The Wall Street Journal also reported that Bush had joined Twitter. But even though Twitter rolled out the ability to verify celebrity accounts as authentic the year before, @George_WBush was never verified. Not that it matters, though, since Bush has used it just four times and didn’t tweet at all for more than two years.

Today, that sort of Web silence would be irresponsible for a major presidential candidate. As have many Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has found success on Twitter. But he’s still losing the numbers game, with fewer than 950,000 followers versus more than 19 million for President Obama.

Still, Romney hasn’t shied away from the Web in other arenas, pouncing on Apple’s mobile advertising service iAd, and attempting to announce that Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan would be his vice-presidential nominee via a campaign-branded mobile app.

Images: Obama, Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; Romney, Maria Dryfhout /

However, President Obama’s AMA — not-so-coincidentally timed during the Republican National Convention in Tampa — puts him out in front of the Internet popularity contest. As with his oft-derided online petition platform for the White House, what he said on Reddit doesn’t really matter. The act alone of reaching out to potential voters on Reddit (which served more than two billion page views in December) and other online communities is now imperative.

That’s because the Internet, for better or for worse, has become the new town hall for politics that many over-eager futurists said it would be in the ’90s. At long last, it’s now a place where current and future candidates have to stop, even if they don’t want to.

So the question is not if Romney should fire back at his rival’s Reddit stunt, but rather how he should do it. Control of the now-crucial online conversation is President Obama’s to lose.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle