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.”
Meredith Segal, a junior at Bowdoin College, started the SFBO group on Facebook in the summer of 2006, in hopes that it would serve as a petition to encourage Obama to run. Thanks largely to Facebook’s “news feed” technology, which sends out automatic alerts about the activities of all of one’s Facebook “friends,” the word spread fast. Soon, she was being inundated with messages and e-mails from students across the country who were eager to help. Segal and others began convening conference calls, and before long, a sophisticated operation with chapters across the country, a regional leadership structure, a field team, a communications department, a finance department and a website had evolved. The group even has a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, a school for the deaf, who specifically coordinates students with disabilities. “We started as a Facebook group, but as the rally demonstrates, we’re a whole lot beyond Facebook at this point,” says Segal. “We’re in the real world.”
Agrebe’s “Barack Obama (One Million Strong)” group [registration required], which is collaborating with SFBO, is also leveraging its online manpower into tangible results. Within hours of launching a fundraising initiative–with the goal of collectively raising $1 million with small donations from members–students had already given $2,000 to the Obama campaign.
While they may be running their operations like seasoned political operatives, both Agrebe and Segal are essentially new to the process. Agrebe was class president of his college, Missouri Western State, and he did some fundraising work around Hurricane Katrina relief; Segal, a neuroscience major, had been involved in community service and a bit of antiwar organizing. The Obama campaign is their first real foray into electoral politics.
The same could probably be said for much of Obama’s youth following. Indeed, Obama’s candidacy is stirring young people more than any other politician in recent memory.
“He has unimaginable appeal to my generation,” says Brian Klaas of Carleton College, editor of the Carleton Progressive. For many 18- to 26-year-olds–who are among the most diverse and, according to numerous polls, most tolerant American generation in history–Obama’s multiracial background embodies the personal and political identity of the Generation Y cohort known as “Millennials.” For a politically disillusioned generation that came of age throughout the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the 2000 election debacle, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Obama’s post-partisan rhetoric is profoundly appealing. To a civic-minded generation that engages in community service at record levels but generally doesn’t vote or trust in politics as a force to change the world–Obama’s past as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago resonates.
“We’ve got a movement–when you’ve got over a quarter of a million people there’s no better word for it–and this is a calling,” says Agrebe. “You don’t expect it, but when it comes, you take the responsibility.”
Young people are responding to Obama, but is he responding to them? So far, his campaign has allowed a youth-led grassroots following to sprout organically without interference. He’s done little with his official Facebook site: He hasn’t personalized his profile, and instead of sending youth-specific messages to potential followers, his staffers have been cutting and pasting standard campaign e-mails and speech transcripts.
But by attending the George Mason rally, Obama signaled to students that he respects their ability and power as organizers, and acknowledges what a grassroots youth movement could bring to his campaign. It’s clear that Obama will have to run a nontraditional, decentralized campaign if he wants to see this kind of energy flourish. He’ll have to communicate consistently and directly with students, in their medium. Blogger Matt Stoller at MyDD.com suggests Obama give concrete tasks for his youth following to accomplish. “He should say, ‘We need a million new primary voters registered by July or August,’ set up a tool to count new primary voters, and periodically call the people that are registering the most voters,” Stoller says. “That would show real trust.”
On the day Obama announced his candidacy, his campaign launched my.barackobama.com, a social networking site that allows supporters to post blogs, organize fundraising drives, create offline meetings and link up with other supporters. The appearance of my.barackobama.com indicates that the campaign is taking social networking seriously in the wake of Obama’s surge on Facebook. The site and online strategy are being run by former Deaniacs, and a co-founder of Facebook has reportedly been brought on board as well. Young people are already dominating activity on the site: Of thousands of groups already formed, three of the top ten are student groups, and SFBO, the top group on the site, has nearly twice as many members as the second-largest group.
The mainstream media tends to portray the Obama youth movement as a pack of groupies, fawning over the latest rock star. But these students have shown that they’re not interested in being spectators.
In a Chicago Reader interview from 1995, Barack Obama wondered, “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer?” If Obama can show his young followers that he’s still that grassroots organizer–a rock star perhaps, but one who listens to, trusts and empowers his base to come on stage and rock with him–it’s going to be one hell of a show.