Sure, the ABC News anchors were out of line to eat up nearly half the debate with their snarky questions on flaps and gaffes, but Barack Obama last week looked like he'd been clocked by the kitchen sink. In his worst debate performance to date, he was low-energy, dodgy and humorless. And yet for all the scratches and dings he's suffered over his incendiary pastor, his "bitter" aspersions and even his patriotism, Obama's Teflon is still working. He's still on track to the Democratic nomination. Part of the explanation is him; it's always harder to trash the smart, cool guy. But a less-recognized reason is the Internet and the Obama campaign's savvy understanding of it. The media and fund-raising rules have undergone a huge change this year. The era of sound bites and fat cats may be coming to a close.
It took me a while to grasp this. On the morning of March 18, when I read an advance text of Obama's Philadelphia speech on race, I told my wife that it was well written but contained no eight- to 15-second sound bites to counteract the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.'s greatest hits. Under the old rules, a 37-minute speech full of complex ideas didn't stand a chance against the excitement of "good TV." Of course, I was wrong. Obama's speech has now been played on YouTube nearly 5.5 million times, with viewers presumably watching at least a few minutes of it.
It turns out the Obama campaign planned it that way. I learned recently that as chief strategist David Axelrod, communications director Robert Gibbs, speechwriter Jon Favreau and Obama himself finalized the speech, they took great care to make sure that no sound bites were included. In other words, they intentionally avoided any of the snappy lines that they know reporters and TV producers are trained to recognize as useful for representing the entire story. A few lines, like the one about Obama's grandmother, did get disproportionately quoted and aired. But the speech was constructed so that you simply couldn't understand it in 10 seconds. If this was making a virtue of necessity—Obama often lacks crispness even when he's speaking well—the speech nonetheless represented a turning point.
It's not that sound bites, which date back at least to Lincoln's "a house divided against itself cannot stand," are dead. In fact, the good, colorful ones get much more play now than in the pre-YouTube age. Obama's words about "bitter" working-class voters who "cling" to religion and guns would have received even greater attention if video had surfaced of him saying them at a closed-door San Francisco fund-raiser. (The poor-quality audio lessened the impact.) All of the candidates still work to fashion memorable expressions to imprint their views—and network news programs still attract large numbers of viewers with their "packages" of sound bites.
But the ecosystem of political media has changed, with sound bites losing their authority. Consumers of news are less easily manipulated by the 24/7 barrage of bites and images (Hillary Clinton doing whisky shots, Obama bowling), which are dissected endlessly on cable. Voters search for their own context. The bad news is that they are often simply looking for their opinions to be validated. The good news is that the search engages them more actively in the process and makes them demand more information than is contained in sound bites.
In knowing the meaning of that term, which was once the inside lingo of TV producers, these voters deconstruct the concept and come to see sound bites as disreputable partisan weapons instead of merely the building blocks of TV pieces. Canned one-liners fall much flatter than they once did. (Remember Hillary's lame "you can't Xerox change" bit?) And with political news more perishable, even the most vivid bits of tape quickly degrade in importance. That's why all the hand-wringing about how much damage the Reverend Wright and San Francisco clips would do to Obama in the fall is exaggerated. The stories will resonate, but at a much lower volume. Attack ads based on them won't get much traction. There's nothing staler than a six-month-old sound bite, even if you can always find it on YouTube.
Just as the Internet has changed television, it's now transforming campaign finance. That sucking sound you hear is the power seeping out of the old, big-money establishment. Last month, a group of heavy-hitting "Hillraisers" (major Clinton donors) sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a tart letter threatening to cut off money for the party if Pelosi didn't stop showing deference to the pledged-delegate count, which favors Obama. Those who didn't find the letter annoying just laughed at it.
Why? Because when you have a candidate for president like Obama, who boasts more than 1.3 million donors with an average contribution of only about $100, the fat cats start looking awfully thin. Hillary has also moved away from big donors; the 200,000 small ones she attracted online in February saved her campaign. Consider the magnitude of the change: in 2004, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry raised about 30 percent of their war chests in amounts of $200 or less. By contrast, about 90 percent of Obama's contributors are small fry.
Campaign "bundlers" of individual $2,300 contributions remain important—that's why Obama was in San Francisco for that fund-raiser—but they no longer control the party at the presidential level. (Senate and House races remain in the grip of big donors.) Obama has dramatically extended Howard Dean's 2004 efforts and turned the Web into a source of renewable energy. Even if you dislike Obama, this is a tremendously positive development in American politics.
If he makes it to the White House, Barack Obama will have a hard time changing how Washington works. We know what can happen when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. And his evident irritation at some of the perversities of the game won't help. But even if Obama fades, he and the Web have already transformed that process.