Obama’s Wide Net

Obama’s Wide Net

His web-driven, self-starting activism could be the key to getting his message out–and bringing young voters to the polls on Super Tuesday.


Editor’s Note:

For more on this subject, see A Conversation with Joe Trippi on TheNation.com.

Despite the different outcomes for his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, Barack Obama won among young voters in both states–and more important, he drew them to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People under 30 made up a third of his support in Iowa–four times the margin of victory–and their turnout was up 19 percentage points from 2004 in New Hampshire. Obama has inspired them, just as Howard Dean did last cycle, but the Chicago organizer’s campaign excelled by using technology that mobilized new and young voters to actually show up and be counted.

In Iowa, Obama’s aides systematically used the popular social networking site Facebook for targeting and organizing. Allison York, a 20-year-old Obama supporter and student at Iowa’s Drake University, spent six hours of her winter break driving from her parents’ Wichita home to Des Moines to a caucus location she found through Facebook. Another student launched a Facebook challenge that recruited more than a million supporters for Obama across the country. And one field organizer created a group for Iowans pledging to caucus for Obama–the first web version of the famous “supporter cards” that candidates urge voters to sign–drawing more than 1,000 people who were not in the party database. “We try to just go where the people are,” explained Obama’s online organizer in Iowa. “Facebook, because of its size, is where the people are, which is why we’ve taken it so seriously as a campaign.”

Obama’s official Facebook profile has about 200,000 “friends”–more than triple Hillary Clinton’s network and six times John Edwards’s yield. Clinton’s top strategists once mocked those numbers, telling reporters, “Our people look like caucus-goers [and Obama’s] look like Facebook.” But after Clinton placed third in Iowa, they hastily tried to catch up. She toured New Hampshire with students, held “roundtables with young undecided voters,” talked up a new idea for a “government blogging team” and launched an “Ask Hillary” Facebook feature on the day of the New Hampshire debate (which was co-sponsored by Facebook and ABC News). Those efforts paid off, giving her a boost among young people above her Iowa showing, but it’s probably too late for her to overtake Obama in organic online support. Beyond Facebook, Obama has the most friends on MySpace and BlackPlanet–about 630,000 combined–and the most traffic by far on YouTube, where people can watch him sans media filter. (After Obama’s stirring Iowa victory speech was uploaded, his official channel alone spiked by more than 1.5 million views.) Obama is also remarkably popular on apolitical Internet terrain. He regularly ranks atop Eventful, an entertainment site that helps fans join forces to request local concerts by their favorite bands. He netted appearance requests from eighty towns in Iowa and has held his own against rock stars across the country, currently ranking third behind the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

Obama’s aides have not simply been riding a wave of hit websites; they also built their own social networking portal to connect and empower activists. Chris Hughes, a 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, joined the Obama campaign to build MyBO, which invites users to network, blog and promote grassroots events. Unlike many campaigns that treat web politics as a separate silo, Obama’s field program is tightly integrated with MyBO. Iowa organizers were required to post all their events on the site and encouraged to write MyBO blog posts, vetted by the campaign, about local efforts. And the campaign trusts supporters to post whatever they want, from house parties to fundraising ideas to blog commentaries. More than 350,000 people have already created MyBO accounts, posting more than 10,000 grassroots events offline, including 1,000 gatherings where supporters simply wear Obama buttons and do community service in their neighborhoods. No other campaign has a decentralized program like it. While young participants are active, the majority of users, according to the site’s administrator, appear to be middle-aged women.

Cheryl Kimmel, 48, is a self-declared “Deaniac” who first learned about Obama when Dean fundraised for Obama’s 2004 Senate primary. This month, Kimmel used MyBO to announce a house party for undecided voters. “It’s a good way to reach out to people that may be interested but that aren’t in the fold,” she explained. MyBO is not just for Deaniacs. Frank Dickerson voted for Bush’s re-election, but the 59-year-old “recovering Republican” has used it for the past four months to organize events and phone banks at his North Carolina home. His MyBO invitation after Obama’s Iowa victory recruited seven new people in a single day, he said, and he is coordinating volunteer trips to South Carolina for the upcoming primary. It’s the first time he has ever been politically active.

This kind of self-starting activism could be crucial on February 5, the largest Super Tuesday ever, with primaries in twenty-two states. It is impossible to visit or buy advertising in every state. “Twenty states and all you’ve got is the candidate on a tarmac–frankly there’s not a whole lot that paid media can do,” predicts Joe Trippi, who ran Dean’s Internet strategy and now works for Edwards. “The traditional old-style top-down centralized campaign structure doesn’t work [for this schedule],” he adds, so the key is “to decentralize.”

On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Obama’s organizers blasted thousands of cellphone text messages to the supporters they had meticulously identified. Younger voters were offered rides. Precinct captains got turnout projections in real time, so they could show undecided caucus attendees that there was statewide momentum. The campaign mobilized others by texting a classic Obama quote, the kind of simple declaration that can sound vague or inspiring, depending on how much idealism you have left: “‘In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it’–Barack. One hour until Caucus starts! Be there by 6:30pm & bring 3 friends!” Hours later, more texts went out by cellphone. One urged tens of thousands of supporters across the country to watch the victory speech on television, while a local message announced victory to exhausted volunteers across Iowa, many of whom were still at their caucus sites. The text replies poured in swiftly. “I have tears of joy in my eyes!” wrote one volunteer at 9:14 pm, and another banged out an exhilarating revelation: “I am so happy & excited for the usa! I can not believe it is about politics! Obama for President!”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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