More than a week before Barack Obama announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, 3,500 students–many of whom had driven for hours from out of state–packed into George Mason University’s Johnson Center in Fairfax, Virginia, brimming with idealism. As the Senator took the stage to address the frenetic young crowd, he was visibly taken aback.
The Obama campaign had done nothing to help with the event. Students for Barack Obama, which began as a group on the social networking site Facebook, had organized every aspect of the rally, from the slick, union-printed posters to the all-student speaker lineup preceding Obama. “This was a serious campaign-level rally,” said 22-year-old Adam Conner, who attended the rally and runs the RunObama.com blog, “something you expect to see towards October of an election year rather than February of an off-year.”
Obama started to deliver his usual stump speech, but soon he began to address his audience directly. Crediting young people for shaping history “more often than not,” from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam protests, he beckoned them to take the lead in fighting against the war in Iraq. Obama ended by recalling, as he often does, Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophecy that “the arc of the moral universe…bends towards justice.” Yet as his speech reached a crescendo, there was a palpable sense that he believed, perhaps more than ever before, in his own message. “Here’s the thing, young people, it doesn’t bend on its own, it bends because you put your hand on that arc and you bend it in the direction of justice,” Obama boomed. “Think about all the power that’s represented here in all of you…. If you all grab that arc, then I have no doubt, I have absolutely no doubt, that regardless of what happens in this presidential year and regardless of what happens in this campaign, America will transform itself.”
The room exploded, and if it hadn’t fully registered before, Obama and his staffers understood that there was genuine potential for something like a Howard Dean 2.0 movement that could be anchored by an even younger grassroots base empowered with newer, sharper online tools.
What happened at George Mason provided physical evidence that Obama’s youth following is more than a bunch of kids who clicked a button. Before the rally, Obama’s campaign already knew they had a massive presence on Facebook. Students for Barack Obama (SFBO) had around 60,000 members, and even more astonishingly, a 26-year-old named Farouk Olu Aregbe had assembled more than 200,000 in his Facebook group “Barack Obama (One Million Strong for Barack)” in little more than two weeks (the group now has more than 272,000 members). According to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, the growth was “unprecedented.” As a point of comparison, the Facebook group for Hillary Clinton has fewer than 4,000 students and the largest group for John Edwards has half that.
Joe Trippi, the architect of Dean’s web-driven grassroots campaign in 2004, marveled at the activity: “The Obama campaign had nothing to do with it, and they’re already at 250,000 people. That’s amazing–the Dean campaign, it took us six months to get to 139,000 people.”