Barack Obama does not look like any other American president, but more important, his supporters look different from every other president’s base. They are the most connected national constituency in history.
During the campaign, Obama’s aides relentlessly recruited voters into several networks at a time. More than a million people asked for campaign text messages on their cellphones. Two million joined MyBO, a website fusing social networking with volunteer work, while more than 5 million supported Obama’s profile on social sites like Facebook. Most famously, 13 million voters signed up for regular e-mails, fundraising pitches and other communications. On election day, a staggering 25 percent of Obama voters were already directly linked to him–and one another–through these networks. Campaigns largely dissolve after elections, but this infrastructure remains intact.
Presidents have always needed intermediaries to rally their base, from the press to party machinery. But Obama has a direct line–or several–to his most active supporters. "We’ve never seen anything like this," says Micah Sifry, who runs the Internet politics site TechPresident.com. Obama has "the ability to directly reach millions of people in a very targeted way [and to] activate support district by district." Since the election his aides have been experimenting with how to use the networks, for governance and for postcampaign politicking.
On the governance side, the transition team is recruiting people to monitor transition meetings, pose public questions to the staff and share input on selected policies, starting with healthcare. Twenty thousand people participated in the first user-generated press conference, which allowed the public to write and rank questions. The bailout, civil liberties and marijuana legalization were popular topics. The transition team’s Internet director, Macon Phillips, said the queries "weren’t only ones you’d expect from supporters, which is a good thing." Phillips did Internet outreach for the campaign, but he stressed that the objectives have shifted. "In the campaign we were organizing people. Now it’s more conversational, trying to listen and engage people that weren’t engaged in the campaign."
The political track is more complicated. A few people still gather at the old Chicago campaign headquarters to draft e-mails and plan volunteer events. The e-mail list could have used a break–7,000 messages went out during the campaign–but the focus is on maintaining momentum. E-mails with announcements, videos, events and donation requests keep pouring out of BarackObama.com. But what is BarackObama.com now? So far, it feels like a campaign without an election. In December supporters met at 4,000 house parties and reported back on the top issues discussed. At one gathering in Brooklyn, the twenty middle-aged attendees were upbeat but unclear on the meeting’s purpose. Volunteers posted hundreds of photos from the events on Obama’s Flickr account, featuring diverse and enthusiastic gatherings that ranged from a handful of people to several hundred. Beyond volunteer labor, the postcampaign organization will have a budget and paid staff, according to a senior field operative who spoke at Rootscamp, an organizing conference in Washington. Some aides refer to this operation as "Obama for America 2.0," though the name has not yet stuck, and no one knows exactly what it will do.