Tech-Savvy Obama Makes History in Iowa

By Roy Mark  |  Posted 01-04-2008

Turns out, the Internet vote was right, at least about the Democrats campaigning in the Iowa caucuses.

Since the presidential campaigns lit their networks a year ago, Sen. Barack Obama quickly sparked as one the hottest political properties on the Web. Despite trailing in the national polls to Sen. Hillary Clinton, the Illinois senator easily raced ahead of Clinton in Facebook supporters, MySpace friends and myriad other Net metrics.

On Jan. 3, Obama won a real political race, upsetting the tough, well-heeled Clinton campaign. Riding a wave of young, text-messaging, tech-savvy Gen X volunteers, Obama captured 38 percent of Iowa Democrats, who turned out in record numbers. Clinton and John Edwards finished eight points back in a virtual tie for second.

"You have done what the cynics said couldn't be done," Obama told supporters in his victory speech. "Our time for change has come."

On the Republican side, though, Internet trends meant less. Rep. Ron Paul, the unquestioned choice of Republicans at Facebook and MySpace and who has raised almost $20 million of money online in the last three months alone, finished fifth with 10 percent of the Republican vote. That's 7 points higher than polls predicted.

"I am more encouraged than ever before," Paul told supporters, pledging to take to his Web-won millions on to next week's New Hampshire primary.

But, then, the candidate who spent the most money in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, managed only a second place finish himself, 10 points behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "We're already seeing a surge in our Web traffic," Huckabee crowed to Larry King.

The huge Democratic turnout – approximately 220,000 caucus attendees and more than 100,000 more than four years ago -- largely benefited Obama, who won more than half of voters under 25 and a significant chunk of first time voters, taking away support from targeted Clinton voters.

The surge in Obama voters is largely attributable to his Iowa ground troops, young volunteers armed with cell phones, wireless Web connections and warm coats, who out-organized the veteran Clinton campaign in turning out their respective voters. Obama was the first candidate to introduce text messaging as a campaign tool, and the campaign was a launch partner on Facebook's F8 platform.

Shortly before midnight, Obama characteristically sent out a flash message to his supporters: "We just won Iowa, and I'm about to head down to talk to everyone. Democrats turned out in record numbers tonight, and independents and even some Republicans joined our party to stand together for change."

Clinton, who was the Democrats' big spender in Iowa's quadrennial exercise in arcane democracy, put the best face on her disappointing finish. "We [Democrats] have seen an unprecedented turnout in Iowa and that's good news," the New York senator said. Brushing aside the results, Clinton vowed, "I am so ready for the rest of this campaign, and I am so ready to lead."

Although the Clinton campaign has stumbled badly coming out of the gate, more than a few candidates have lost in Iowa and went on to claim the Democratic nomination, including her husband, former president Bill Clinton.

Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who finished second in Iowa in his 2004 presidential bid before joining the John Kerry ticket as a vice presidential nominee, proclaimed his Jan. 3 razor thin second place finish over Clinton as a victory and new life for his beleaguered campaign.

"This is a huge momentum change," he said. "As a practical matter, the voters will now decide who is the better agent of change, me or Sen. Obama."

The campaigns now shift to the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, quickly followed by five more primaries in January and an unprecedented 22 primaries on Feb. 8.