Barack Obama's hot streak in recent primaries has caught many people by surprise, and has led many to wonder just how he's managed to mobilize such a large percentage of the population so quickly and so thoroughly. Two strong factors include his popularity on the Internet, and his ability to motivate not only young people, but also a voting bloc that other candidates thus far have not: the so-called "creative class."
Matt Yglesias, a 26-year-old political blogger for the Atlantic Monthly, has dubbed the Illinois senator "The Cool Candidate."
"The people who support him want to talk about supporting him [and] want to link up with people who are also into Obama — that's why you're seeing such large rallies," Yglesias told MTV News. "And some of his user-generated viral content ... Hillary Clinton supporters are older and less inclined to make a Web site about something they're into, whereas Obama has a critical mass of creative-class-type people."
Richard Florida, a professor of business economics at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Business and author of the book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," agreed. "I think this is the first creative-class election in American history," he said. "The creative class is an online class; it's YouTube, it's MySpace, it's music." Based on his research, Florida estimates that 40 million Americans are members of this group. "They're inventors, they're entrepreneurs, they're people who work in arts and culture fields. They design, [they're] musicians, artists. Certainly you might think that more young people have these values, but all age groups are members of this class of people."
Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas, who wrote a song and made a video (with guest appearances from John Legend, Common, Scarlett Johansson, Nick Cannon and others) inspired by Obama's New Hampshire primary speech — and has another in the works — said he feels the presence of this class too.
"When people come up to me on the street, they say, 'Yes We Can,' " he told MTV News. "It's consumed people and inspired people so much that nothing else seems to matter as far as any other songs I've written."
Indeed, many experts that MTV News spoke with in recent days believe that Obama's campaign has tapped into a new category of voters.
"There is no doubt in my mind that the creative class is a new voting bloc," Florida said. "The Republicans appeal to them on individualism, economic opportunity and keeping the finances in order. Democrats appeal to them with social liberalism, treating women with respect, treating the environment well and valuing the gay-and-lesbian community."
This collective has made its voice heard — loud if not always clear — on the Internet. In addition to Florida, they include activists like Mat Honan, Shepard Fairey, Billy Wimsatt and the people behind Barelypolitical.com.
They're also mobilizing in the real world at events like Drinking Liberally, a series of nationwide bar parties devoted to progressive political conversation.
While Obama has plenty of famous supporters, this group is mostly not made up of celebrities — but many of them are definitely Internet-famous.
Chicago native Billy Wimsatt is the executive director of the League of Young Voters (which he'd originally called The League of Pissed-Off Voters), a Brooklyn, New York-based get-out-the-vote group. He used to be a graffiti artist, plastering city walls with his tag, "Upski." Wimsatt met Obama in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood during the late '90s.
"I ran into him outside of a restaurant and he was just kind of doing errands," Wimsatt recalled. "I had seen him speak about juvenile-justice issues in Illinois. I asked him how that was going and he said, 'Good.' He gave me his phone number and said, 'Call me anytime' or whatever. I was like some nobody kid."
"Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle" is the name of a Web site created by Mat Honan, 35, a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco. It has since spawned a flurry of "bicycle" parody sites (which have skewered John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Steve Jobs), including "I Am My New Bicycle."
While Honan shies away from the tag "hipster," he does feel a common thread running through the creative class.
"I think something about being a hipster or about people who they call hipsters is this endless quest for authenticity," he said. "That's what drove punk rock and indie rock and a lot of the hipster values."
There are ambiguous Web sites, too. Barelypolitical.com has poked fun at candidates on both sides of the aisle, and their "Obama Girl" video was a big hit. And sites like Senatorobamas.com — which generally adorns images of the senator's face with goofy mustaches and the like — feed the buzz.
"I certainly think if you are trying to sink Obama's campaign, this is not the way to do it," said Sara Smith, associate editor of Wonkette.com, referring to Senatorobamas. "It's raising awareness for the Obama brand."
Of course, using the Web as a word-of-mouth tool is nothing new. In the pre-YouTube era of 2004, Howard Dean famously harnessed the power of the Internet with his "Deaniac" fanbase (only to see it backfire with his infamous "I have a scream" speech), and on the Republican side, Ron Paul has had similar success raising money on the Internet and mobilizing young voters. All 2008 presidential candidates have worked to build their followings on the Internet — but many people say there's something more authentic about Obama's campaign.
"I used to think voting was irrelevant," Wimsatt said, adding that he didn't vote until 2004. "Last time around it was about stopping Bush. People weren't excited about Kerry. Now they're actually excited about Obama. The idea that turnout [is] doubling, tripling, quadrupling among young voters is out of this world."
And while the Obama campaign has not revealed a detailed outline of its strategy thus far, there's no question that it's working.
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