| | By Elizabeth Kennedy.
On her way to give prospective volunteers a tour of the new East Bay for Obama facilities, Ilana Wexler might pass for just another student taking the long way home from Berkeley High School. But Wexler is a 16-year-old powerhouse from Oakland whose grassroots organizing skills outstrip the efforts of veteran political activists nationwide. Following her wildly successful 2004 Kids for Kerry effort that culminated in a speech at the Democratic convention, Wexler established Barack Rocks Us in December 2007 and has since built a team of more than 450 young volunteers that supports the recruitment efforts of the brand-new East Bay for Obama office in downtown Berkeley. Wexler visited the Adeline Street office every afternoon during the summer, an effort she plans to continue through November.
And in the East Bay—an area with some of the bluest dots in a blue state—she’s not alone in her passionate commitment to campaigning.
“Before we even had furniture,” says Maggie Fleming, the 28-year-old Obama team coordinator for California’s Ninth Congressional District that stretches from Albany to Castro Valley, “we planned an event on MyBarackObama.com. In that short time, we organized over 100 people to join in a volunteer orientation that day.”
One week later at the office opening—which is the Northern California Obama field headquarters—that number had climbed to 350.
The key strength of Obama’s team lies in the forged link between the online network and ongoing local neighborhood organizing, says Fleming. One of the forces behind the development of the new East Bay for Obama branch, she considers these efforts the natural and necessary complement to the massive online presence of Obama supporters.
Before February’s Super Tuesday primaries, which included California’s, thousands of East Bay residents volunteered, either in person or via a computer, for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Some headed to the East Bay headquarters—then in downtown Oakland—after work, cell phones and chargers in hand, for a few hours of calling voters in places like Bakersfield; for several weeks last winter, for example, Oakland resident Dan Irving bypassed the exit to his house—and dinner with his wife and two young children—on his way home from his Novato office to hunker down in his suit and tie and make phone calls at the headquarters until it closed at 9 p.m. Many hosted parties in their homes to organize volunteers and worked as precinct captains to coordinate neighborhood campaigning; others picked up lists of addresses from headquarters or online and set off, sometimes in rain and hail, to knock on doors and talk to people about Obama; and the truly hardy flew to other states on their own nickel to campaign. Now with the general election looming in November, Obama supporters from all over the East Bay are gathering in force again, to do what they do best: combine online networking with old-fashioned people contact.
The East Bay’s response to Obama’s candidacy may suggest that he is the first candidate in years to motivate supporters through this kind of grassroots organizing. Yet, back in the ’80s, Jesse Jackson offered messages of hope and social justice, inspiring a 50-state Rainbow Coalition of underrepresented citizens to stand up and claim their rights. Ross Perot broke records similar to Obama’s current people power as early as 1992, building the colossal two million-member network United We Stand America, all before the Internet factored into political campaigns.
But the young senator with the brave oratorial style and the dazzling smile has, like few before him, mobilized Americans of all ages, particularly young people and those who have never taken an interest in politics. His numbers are breathtaking even to the most cynical armchair analyst: Obama brought as many voters under the age of 30 out to the Iowa caucuses as he did senior citizens. And the youth vote doubled, sometimes tripled from its previous levels in 2004 in every Democratic contest of the primary.
And that’s spare change compared to Obama’s outsize representation on social networks online: on his MyBarackObama.com, Facebook, and MySpace sites, Obama boasts two-and-a-half million supporters, comprised of well over 8,000 affinity groups and a staggeringly strong database of four to eight million e-mail addresses at the ready.
Technically and strategically, the Obama team continues to respond to change with the unmistakable agility of an Internet startup. This strength is not surprising given the preponderance of 20-somethings and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs at Obama’s back.
Silicon Valley executives like San Franciscan Ray Thackeray and venture capitalists alike have tried without success for years to convince politicians of the benefits of breaking new campaign ground in this way with social software, such as Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. An innovator who filed a patent for an early social networking site called seeUthere.com nearly a decade ago, Thackeray marketed his meeting-management software to Jerry Brown and other local California politicians but never had any takers. “We were trying to sell the concept to political groups so long ago,” explains Thackeray, who recently hosted a Geeks for Obama event in San Francisco packed wall-to-wall with supporters from all around the Bay Area. “Nearly a decade ago they could have been doing what the Obama campaign did.”
However, as American culture continued to do more digitally than ever before, political candidates had no choice but to eventually join the game. Howard Dean was among the first early adopters to set up a Web presence and accept online campaign contributions. In 2004, the first presidential race subject to the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law, Dean was able to bring in $50 million in campaign contributions, primarily comprised of online donations averaging just $80 each. With this model from the previous election cycle at their disposal, presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain represent the real lost opportunity in online execution. While 94 percent of the donations Obama received are $200 or less, that number was 26 percent for Clinton, and 13 percent for McCain.
Online fund-raising, in general, has managed to transform political fund-raising. Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, explains, “For all the other politicians in America at least since the 1960s, fund-raising was something you did under cover of darkness.” Now that one in 10 of those who voted for Obama in the primary were also contributors to his campaign, the message becomes the power of the modest contributor, Obama’s direct connection to the American people, and the associated presumption that he will then naturally act in their best interest.
Barbara Tengeri, a substitute teacher with the Hayward Unified School District and one of the Obama campaign’s top 100 phone-bankers, suggests that fund-raising is so successful online not only because of the sheer force of social networking, but because of the campaign’s inclusive get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We register every citizen we can. We register people whether they have a home or not. We register them even if they give us a street corner for an address,” says Tengeri, who was born in Honduras and has lived in Nairobi, Kenya. “You go to East Oakland—they’re excited about Barack Obama. We have to give these voters the opportunity to express themselves.”
Tengeri, who lives in Berkeley, is so firm in the conviction that Obama represents her best interest, that she goes out of her way when phone-banking to bring her 4-year-old grandson Muroki in the room to hear what she says about Obama. “In everything we do, we represent Barack Obama,” says Tengeri. “Muroki knows Barack Obama. He likes Barack Obama.”
By contrast, McCain moved into the general election almost unaware of the opportunities of social networking tools available in the Web 2.0 era, which has brought thousands of people together, in both small and enormous groups. And when the social networks successfully do what they’re supposed to do—attract visitors—the technology has no trouble supporting larger numbers.
Though Fleming labors to keep the East Bay for Obama Web site current, she also depends very heavily on the back-end of this greater MyBarackObama.com site, or MyBo, to recruit, communicate with and direct her volunteers and campaign supporters. And where supporters at MyBo are able to carry out a mind-boggling array of organizing actions—click a “Make Calls” button and receive a list of local phone numbers, join groups, organize and RSVP for events, send each other private messages, create networks of friends, grab widgets, order ringtones, receive campaign updates by text and post blogs, for starters—few of these Web 2.0 possibilities are available on McCain’s stand-alone site. A relatively static setup focused on dissemination of news and one-way messaging, McCain’s site is called McCainSpace, a moniker as obsolete as “information superhighway” or the prefix “cyber.”
Comparing Obama’s campaign, on the other hand, with Dean’s, Joe Trippi, Dean’s former campaign manager, says, “If the Dean campaign was the Wright brothers, then Obama was Apollo 11.” But Shirky, an adviser to another early social software startup called Meetup, argues that Obama’s use of this software ought not be overstated.
“To say Obama couldn’t have gotten this far without social software is now no more dramatic than to say he couldn’t have done it without telephones,” says Shirky.
What is dramatic—and what marks a true point of departure from any historic presidential campaign in U.S. history—is the scale of the integration between online networking and real-time organizing with areas like the East Bay as the perfect junction. Individuals like East Bay retiree Jean Oakley or SEIU member Margot Reed, who may have just started out perusing MyBo, are now contributing funds and volunteering their time in massive numbers. On the night of Obama’s 47th birthday in early August, well after the East Bay for Obama offices had officially closed, Fleming and her team alerted activists on MyBo that they planned to show up at headquarters with a birthday cake for the senator and then do some extra phoning. Dozens of volunteers joined this impromptu event made possible because of fast, mass, online communication.
And online registration is reinforced inversely on the ground as well, with staff constantly directing new users to MyBo. Even Obama himself is doing the recruiting, welcoming 20,000 supporters into stadium rallies for free, provided that they raise their cell phones and type in a sequence of numbers to deliver their contact information to campaign headquarters.
As those rapt with Obama’s people power declare it a new day for bottom-up grassroots organizing online, Shirky urges users to take a closer look at the site capabilities and to appreciate the nature of the site, its closely managed messaging and its limitations.
“It looks like a social network. It’s got the technology of a social network. But it’s not a social network,” he says. “You can’t do any socializing. MyBarackObama is set up for public declaration of loyalty, fund-raising, and recruiting for more people to do public declarations of loyalty.”
At least at this point in the campaign, MyBo seems to suit users just fine. People are signing on to declare their loyalty, to fund-raise and to recruit their friends, families and next-door neighbors—by the millions. Ayelet Waldman, Berkeley author of the Mommy-Track mystery series and Love and Other Impossible Pursuits who is also married to author Michael Chabon, is a new precinct captain in Barbara Lee’s 9th district and a delegate to the convention. Waldman set up her own page on MyBo and joined both Women and Jews for Obama. “I’ve raised over 90,000 dollars just on the Web,” says Waldman. “That’s the fund-raising. That’s just the very beginning. Beyond that, I planned Writing for Change parties. MyBo makes everything so easy.”
The Writing for Change events are among countless branded fundraising efforts that represent the best practices of modern viral marketing, organized events with a name and Web presence that can be promoted through wildfire word-of-mouth in a massive network of engaged participants. The Walk for Change event in June 2007 called upon supporters to go door-to-door, resulting in a workforce of 10,000 volunteers canvassing on Obama’s behalf all over the country. A year later, immediately following Hillary Rodham Clinton’s withdrawal from the race, the Unite for Change movement stimulated thousands of supporters to host events in their homes in order to bring Democrats and Independents into the Obama fold.
Jerry Dahlke, a boomer-generation fund-raiser from San Jose, is an individual Obama supporter who attended Geeks for Obama in San Francisco, one of the 4,000 Unite for Change parties held nationwide. Politically active since he went door to door for Hubert Humphrey in the late ’60s, Dahlke said the MyBo technology was accessible enough to draw him in initially, but that he never felt as if he were giving over to intrusive or cumbersome registration routines.
“I picked what I wanted to use, and as I have moved along, I’ve used more. I didn’t have my own page until very recently . . . It’s pretty amazing for someone my age to be using this. I’ve been in politics for so long, but this is a comfortable new development,” says Dahlke. “If I don’t want to use everything or disclose everything, I don’t have to. I don’t have to become a Facebook addict.”
Dahlke is quick to point out that he does not mistake the networking capacity of MyBo for actual field operations. “That’s not the work of going out, of pounding the pavement,” he says. “You’ve got to do both, got to do them together.”
In an effort to keep its campaign local, East Bay for Obama devotes resources to organizing events through the community service group Hope & Action whose members wear their Obama T-shirts while doing good works locally. They lead Lake Merritt cleanups, work soup kitchen shifts and conduct voter registration drives in many of the East Bay’s underserved communities. Tengeri says this is why getting on the phone often matters so much to her. “This campaign, it inspires people who have to depend on those soup kitchens,” she says.
Both Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder now working as Obama’s online organizing guru, and Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign’s 26-year-old director of new media who worked on Dean’s campaign as well, consider MyBo a public utility.
“We’ve tried to bring two principles to this campaign,” says Rospars, who is based in Chicago. “One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectations of what it means to be a supporter. It’s not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give $5, make some calls, hold an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there’s a presumption that they will organize.”
Rocky Fernandez, a Hayward resident and president of the California Young Democrats, believes that this open solicitation is the essence of the campaign’s success. “Obama asked us to get involved,” says Fernandez. “That is the first part of any movement.”
And much like at any good startup, Obama campaigners who deliver committed voters by making a lot of phone calls and knocking on a lot of doors are quickly promoted into roles with more responsibility.
Another advantage to Obama’s deep network of supporters is how easy it is to replicate one volunteer’s successful ideas so that thousands don’t have to re-invent the wheel. For example, the East Bay Obama office, Fleming explained, is organizing carpools of volunteers to Nevada—a likely swing state in November—every weekend from now until election day.
Fleming says that with the help of online organizing better ideas are executed faster and on a grander scale. “One of the things I’ve been in awe of with this campaign is the diversity of the people that come to it. Here at the East Bay office, we have Republicans who are helping out, people who haven’t been involved in politics since Bobby Kennedy, people who are teachers, who have their own businesses, lawyers, people from the LBGT community—and because of that we have fresh ideas,” Fleming says. “The campaign encourages people to take action, and so we are able to come up with more creative ways to campaign than the usual top-down model.”
Elizabeth Kennedy is a freelance writer living in Oakland. Keep up with her at www.elizabethkennedy.org.
Barack’s backers: Maggie Fleming is the Obama campaign’s team coordinator for California’s Ninth Congressional District, represented by Barbara Lee. The campaign recently opened its East Bay for Obama office in downtown Berkeley. Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Online before its time: Silicon Valley exec Ray Thackeray was an early innovator with social networking software. He hosted a Geeks for Obama event this summer. Photo by Pat Mazzera.
Obama mama: Acclaimed novelist Ayelet Waldman, who lives in Berkeley, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for Obama online. Photo by Alain McLaughlin.