The Political Trail

Online cajoling the new currency

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Jonas
Globe Columnist / February 10, 2008

Ted Kennedy got plenty of attention when he threw in last month with Barack Obama for president. But it wasn't the liberal lion's backing - or his stemwinder of an endorsement speech - that pushed Ada Focer into the Obama column. For that, the 58-year-old Cambridge resident credits her daughter, a painter living in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose Jan. 21 e-mail to friends and family prompted Focer to take a closer look at the Illinois senator.

"Check out this video of Barack Obama speaking at Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Atlanta," wrote Grace Marlier in an e-mail that included a link to the speech on Obama's campaign website. "You don't have to cry like I did," she wrote, "but if you're not decided on who you're supporting presidentially, this might give you an idea of why I'm for Obama."

"That was definitely my wake-up call," said Focer, a Boston University doctoral student and teaching fellow who was leaning toward Hillary Clinton but then did more reading about Obama and wound up voting for him in Tuesday's primary.

Meanwhile, it's hard to imagine that Laurie Martinelli's aunt in Lenox was swayed much by Tom Menino, Sal DiMasi, or Therese Murray, chief marshals of the parade of pols claiming credit for helping deliver Massachusetts to Clinton. But an e-mail from Martinelli, a Dorchester lawyer, to 25 friends and relatives urging them to vote for Clinton might have done the trick. "I do think I helped change the mind of some people who were on the fence," Martinelli said Tuesday night while watching returns with a dozen friends at the Ashmont Grill.

For all the talk of Tuesday's primary as a battle between the big-name Massachusetts endorsers who were pushing the two Democratic presidential contenders, the cajoling that was happening on the ground - or, more precisely, online - may have been a more potent force.

"The power structure of politics is undergoing a complete change," said Morley Winograd, who served as a telecommunications adviser to Vice President Al Gore and now directs the Institute for Communication Technology Management at the University of Southern California. "The TV guys aren't as important as they used to be. The fund-raising guys clearly aren't as important. And big-name endorsements are much less important."

Winograd, coauthor of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics," which will be published next month, says e-mail and social-networking sites have democratized campaigns in ways that are marginalizing the roles of the traditional potentates.

"Instead of campaigns deciding they want to do something and telling people to do it, it's all from the bottom up," said Winograd.

"A plea for Obama" was the subject line on an e-mail sent last weekend by Barry Bluestone, a Northeastern University social science dean, and his wife, Mary Ellen Colten, a research director at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Bluestone estimated the e-missive went out to about 800 people. "And I've got 10 friends who have done the same with their e-mail lists," he said.

"The blast e-mail is the new version of the tried and true 'dear friend' postcard," said Sean Fitzgerald, a veteran Somerville political operative who received several such entreaties.

Jesse Mermell, a Brookline selectwoman who directs the Massachusetts Women's Political Caucus, says she sent an e-mail to 200 to 300 friends, neighbors, and colleagues urging them to support Clinton.

While the new grass-roots activism may operate independently of traditional hierarchies, the campaigns are doing their best to tap the new models and help them along. Just as Grace Marlier wrote her own Obama e-mail endorsement and used the campaign's website to deliver a link to the candidate's Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech, a group of Clinton backers in Brookline organized a sign-holding event last Sunday in Coolidge Corner by posting a notice of it on the Clinton website, Mermell said. "And right after that, we had a four-hour phone bank that was entirely organized by e-mail," she said.

Not everyone is enamored of the new decentralized power to spread endorsement messages far and wide. "I've received lots, I send none," said Robert Winters, a Cambridge political junkie who says he's turned off by the online efforts that "say vote this way or that way."

But in the end, that's the message of all campaigning. The difference now is how the messages get delivered and who has the power to deliver them.

"I have family in Seattle," Focer, the Cambridge resident swayed to Obama by her daughter, said on Wednesday, looking ahead to Washington's caucuses, which were scheduled to take place yesterday. "I have a draft of what I plan to send them," she said of her own Obama e-mail. "They know I care about these things, so I'm going to copy my daughter and see if I can make a difference there."

Michael Jonas can be reached at

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