Gaffes in the age of the Internet

It is far too early to tell yet and the odds remain long, but if bittergate does play a decisive role in the either the remaining period of the Democratic primary contest or the Presidential election, it might have a good claim to be the single most important Internet-related political event thus far recorded. For those not in the know, the whole thing started with a story on the Huffington Post blog, written by Mayhill Fowler featured comments made by Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser on April 6th.

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them... And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The story is interesting on a number of levels, as it shines a light on the huge role the Internet is now playing in American political campaigns. The first thing to note is the source - the Huffington Post. Ironically, this has been one of the most pro-Obama blogs out there over the course of the election, so that the quote emerged there is particularly ironic (it should also be noted that Arianna Huffington has already penned a defence of Obama, and accused Clinton of dirty politics on the issue). But the whole sequence of events illustrates a problem for modern campaigns - Mayhill Fowler is not a Washington press corp reporter. She is a private citizen, a mother, a retired teacher who gave up work to bring up her family. In short: no campaign is ever going to see her coming or know if there is a Mayhill Fowler in the room. She simply bought a ticket for the fundraiser and recorded it. 

Then the whole event plays out in the blogosphere, as much as in the TV media. The issue may may be about a particular matter, but the narrative is very familiar. The pro-Obama Daily Kos, for example, carries a piece on its frontpage accusing the mainstream media of focusing on triviality. In contrast, the conservative Townhall site is littered with hatchet pieces based on the quote. Reading the comments that follow on both sites, it really is easy to believe that Cass Sunstein had a point about the Balkanisation of discussion on the web (although my award for piece of the day goes to Bill Krystol's - this one, not this one - New York Times piece, which implies that Barack Obama is some kind of revolutionary Marxist).

Another interesting Internet angle is how campaigns try to turn these events to their advantage. Apparently John McCain is already trying to fundraise on the back of the comments. Most interesting of all perhaps is the email sent out by David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager. In it he says:

You've probably heard about the latest dust-up in the Democratic race.

A few days ago, Barack spoke about the frustrations that working people in this country are feeling and said what we all know is true: that many people are bitter and angry because they believe their government isn't listening to them.

You and I both know that the hope of changing that reality is what drives the unprecedented support for this campaign from ordinary people in every part of the country.

But our opponents have been spinning the media and peddling fake outrage around the clock. John McCain's campaign, which will continue the George Bush economic policies that have devastated the middle class, called Barack out of touch and elitist. And Hillary Clinton, who is the candidate who said lobbyists represent real people, didn't just echo the Republican candidate's talking points: she actually used the very same words to pile on with more attacks...

If you can support the campaign at this crucial moment, you'll be able to share your story about why you're committed to this campaign.

Two things are going on here. Firstly, the Obama camp are using their email list to disseminate what seems to have become their standard fire fighting spin. They are focusing on the bitter angle of the comments (as in "Barack spoke about the frustrations that working people in this country are feeling and said what we all know is true"), rather than the potentially much more damaging observations about faith, gun ownership and anti-immigrant feeling. Indeed, it might be argued that the branding of the whole affair as bittergate represents a good first step on the road to recovery from the gaffe for the Obama camp. They are also trying to tie the issue in with their existing campaign themes, in particular on corporate power and lobbying.

Secondly, they are trying to turn the event into a fundraising opportunity, wherein they can whip up their supporters to donate on the back of a perceived injustice committed against their candidate (see the above cited Daily Kos post for the evidence of this feeling). Given this election has been going on so long, and people are now firmly divided into the Clinton and Obama supporters (and are also thus predisposed to seeing the election in certain ways that favour their preferred candidate), so both candidates have a network of supporters they can tap into in this way.