Can Freedom Works, Online Tea Party Activism ‘Trump’ Obama’s Organizing for America?

Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t advertise by updating his status, President Barack Obama did. Yesterday the president hosted a town hall meeting at the company headquarters in Palo Alto, California, with the 26-year-old CEO. In just the second week of his official bid for re-election, the president is apparently prioritizing the new media campaign and the youth movement that were critical to his 2008 victory.

Organizing for America, officially established by the Democratic National Committee after the president’s inauguration, was the force behind Obama’s online grass roots and fueled in large part by “fired up” young activists and their digital activities. It forever changed the face of elections by banking on viral sharing, organizing and fundraising.

While Obama surely is hoping to plug into that same support, his opponents will undoubtedly aim for a greater stake in new media campaign real estate. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus won on a campaign that appealed to a “new era of leadership” and promised to be especially aggressive in utilizing the next generation of new media campaign tools in 2012.

Since 2008, the GOP’s new media efforts have been bolstered by online Tea Party activism. Answering to OFA in Massachusetts was Republican Scott Brown’s online network The Brown Brigade, a huge contributing factor to his upset over Democrat Attorney General Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s senate seat (the first federal election after the presidential election). Hosted through a Ning network, the Brigade raised over $1 million in one day thanks to Tea Party Support while OFA, working through the mainframes of Facebook and Twitter fell far short for Coakley.

The rise of Sarah Palin through the GOP establishment without the cult-like following of the Tea Party seems impossible. Conversely, perhaps one obvious reason the GOP hasn’t rejected the Tea Party as a fringe element is because the institution is counting on the artillery the Tea Party brings to the table in defeating Obama, especially on the new media front.

Consider Glenn Beck, a major mouthpiece for the right wing. He’s taking the Tea Party activism and organization that he lectured about on television to the internet. Through his website, Beck is promoting Freedom Works – a new media organization platform that looks like the 2.0 version of The Brown Brigade.

Certainly, Republican primary contenders with the blessing of the Tea Party will fare better in online campaign battles with such tools at their disposal than those without. Donald Trump is wise to identify himself as a member of the Tea Party. Establishing his “love” for the group early and often, he is already positioning himself to benefit from online Tea Party activism should he lose the GOP primary and be forced to run as an Independent.

On the other hand, Mitt Romney’s online video asking for volunteers, donations, and message sharing in support of his exploratory committee, a “cause” he claims isn’t about a person but rather “American freedom and greatness,” seems like an out-of-touch attempt to inspire online activism without the backbone of a real online platform or very deep network following (while Romney’s twitter following is barley at 37,000, Sarah Palin’s is close to half a million).

As if merely mentioning young people and the internet were enough to inspire results on election day. In fact, though a 66% majority of people under the age of 30 voted for Barack Obama, according to Pew Research exit polls, that demographic was not a critical voter block. Obama would have lost Indiana and North Carolina, but carried Ohio, Florida, and still maintained the national vote.

According to the same report, young people in the United States brought an an intangible quality to the election, an enthusiasm apparent in their online activity, that generated tangible support at the polls. Far more young people than older reported attending a campaign event in 2008 while nearly one-in-ten donated money to a presidential candidate. And of course, the unpaid labor of eager campaign interns and volunteers is critical to keeping campaign headquarters across the country running.

But that was then. With a higher unemployment rate than the national average the youth demographic some are calling “generation basement” (as in, stuck in your parents’ basement) is probably much more disillusioned as another class is set to graduate from college with poor job prospects in the Spring.

So will those basement bloggers again return to their online networks to enthusiastically spread the message of change? Maybe unemployment has left a bitter taste in their mouth and they’ll try a different flavor, red, maybe tea, in the hope of tasting the benefits of job creation from a guy who has the power to say “You’re Hired?” Or, is the appeal by Romney for young people to support, through unpaid labor, a “cause” dedicated to jobs, but without solid online roots,so ironic that young voters log-off all together and leave the digital battle to their parents and the pundits?

Either way, the new media showdown that will pave the way to the White House in 2012 is already well under construction.