Barack Obama has filed papers to explore a presidential bid, and several political operatives are already building him a national campaign. But they don’t work for Obama. They are volunteers who hope to “draft” Obama into the presidential race by gathering supporter lists, producing commercials, raising money and promoting his candidacy to activists and reporters around the country. Run Obama boasts more than 17,000 supporters, a flashy website, an active YouTube account and, unlike most grassroots movements, a pro bono DC consultant plotting strategy.
Two other websites have popped up to tout the senator from Illinois, DraftObama.org and Barack Obama for America. Several other 2008 hopefuls now have “draft” websites to their name. The “draft” website for Hillary Clinton drew more than 75,000 e-mail supporters–even before her January 20 declaration that she would enter the race. Last month, a former top aide to Harry Reid stretched the concept further, announcing a “draft committee” of only seventy people for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who also declared his intention to run this weekend. (The paltry size of the Richardson committee did not deter the Associated Press from the serious headline “Campaign Launched to Draft New Mexico Governor for President.”)
What exactly is the point of “drafting” top-tier politicians who are already actively pursuing the presidency?
The Run Obama volunteers say their work is vital because they can both measure and build on the demand for an Obama candidacy without the restrictions that bind his Senate staff. “Running for President is brutal,” said Todd Webster, a former aide to Al Gore and Tom Daschle who runs the website out of his Beltway office. “We want to show [Obama] if he decided to run he would have a grassroots army ready to go and help his campaign.”
If Obama formally enters the race, as he is expected to do February 10, the Run Obama volunteers will give the campaign all of the data they have collected about supporters. Webster says he is not currently talking with Obama’s staffers, although he knows several of them from their previous work for Daschle. Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the exploratory committee, says that the enthusiasm online is “a representation of people who have turned out across the country to hear him speak, read his book” and that “groundswell” led Obama to “actively explore the presidency.” VoteHillary.org, the “draft” website for Hillary Clinton, was created three years ago by Peter Feddo, a 23-year-old technology consultant in Richmond, Virginia, who says he spends more than twenty hours a week on the effort. He believes Clinton “acknowledged the grassroots call for her candidacy” by entering the race this weekend. While Feddo is generally upbeat about people getting active for any potential candidate, he did contrast Hillary’s supporters with a more synthetic description of Obama’s high-powered boosters. “It’s certainly helped the draft Obama people to have Astroturf layers out there, but we’ve got the real deal,” he said.
Despite the explanations, these campaigns to “draft” frontrunners still feel like a charity drive for Paris Hilton. It rankles because they are not only unnecessary but a little perverse.
We don’t need to “draft” top-tier politicians who are already actively pursuing the presidency. A draft compels you to do something you would not otherwise do. Civilians are drafted to fight wars. Reluctant public servants are drafted into electoral politics. But ambitious politicians, by definition, do not need a draft to run for higher office.
The recent string of 2008 “drafts” also risks diluting the impact of one of the most innovative successes in Internet politics. Several web-based drafts have recruited accomplished, apolitical leaders and turned them into compelling rookies for the Democratic Party.
In 2003 netroots activists pushed General Wesley Clark, who had taken almost no steps toward running for President, into a crowded field by generating a large supporter list, hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign pledges, amateur radio ads and plenty of speculation about his potential candidacy.
In Virginia last year, local bloggers not only drafted James Webb into the first campaign of his life but helped the former Reagan official reintroduce himself as a proud new member of the Democratic Party. He beat a well-funded lobbyist in the primary and then unseated Senator George Allen. As a forceful and longtime opponent of the Iraq War, Webb is quickly becoming a foreign policy leader for Democrats, who tapped him to give the official response to the Presidents’s State of the Union address.
It is hard to draw new leaders like Clark and Webb into electoral politics, especially in expensive races where establishment frontrunners have the edge. Both men have said that the draft campaigns had a major effect on their decision to run. Webb met with several of his online supporters before taking the plunge, and both hired draft activists to work on their campaigns.
But if draft websites become another pro forma step in America’s choreographed and overhyped presidential campaigns, co-opted by frontrunners and thus written off by activists, donors and reporters, they will have far less ability to bring new blood into politics. Then the only people recruited by drafts will be those who have already enlisted.