It was just an organizational meeting for Senator Barack Obama’s New York volunteers, but the gathering this month jammed every pew of a church in the East Village, and the crowd spilled over into not one but two overflow rooms.
All told, 710 people showed up, even though the closest they would get to Mr. Obama, the Illinois Democrat and presidential candidate, that night would be to view a campaign screening of a biographical DVD. They cheered wildly anyway. Many had already formed their own volunteer groups in New York: Brooklyn for Barack, NYC4Obama, the Audacity of Park Slope. Quite a few already had Web sites, neatly designed logos, newsletters and regular meetings.
The grass-roots following for Mr. Obama in the backyard of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has been built around a sophisticated group of young professionals skilled in marketing, organizing, Web design and other useful areas. But as Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination proved four years ago, it takes more than a core group of dedicated, Web-savvy supporters to win votes.
“One of the lessons, obviously for us, is making sure that the grass-roots enthusiasm translates into votes,” Mr. Obama said in a recent interview. “And that’s something obviously that we’re going to be paying a lot of attention to.”
Organizers of Mr. Obama’s grass-roots campaign are doing what they can to focus the enthusiasm of volunteers on useful work, and to train them so their efforts do no harm to Mr. Obama’s bid. Yet the activities of some supporters, operating outside of the official campaign, have raised questions for Mr. Obama to answer.
Steve Phillips, a San Francisco lawyer and the son-in-law of the billionaire Democratic donors Herb and Marion Sandler, has formed an independent organization, Vote Hope 2008, that has been soliciting money to help Mr. Obama win the California primary. Mr. Obama has criticized such groups, which are known as 527s, because they allow unlimited contributions outside the caps set by campaign finance rules.
“It is our hope that anyone who supports Obama does so directly through his campaign,” Bill Burton, a campaign spokesman, said.
Despite situations like this one, the Obama campaign is carefully aligning itself with volunteers in New York and elsewhere. Ray Rivera, the northeast field director for the Obama campaign, told the crowd gathered in the East Village that the Dean example in 2004 should serve as a cautionary tale.
“A lot of national momentum, lot of national online support,” Mr. Rivera said. “Did he win the presidency? No, it sort of faltered. We want to take all this energy, all of this offline and online grassroots energy, and turn it into a Democratic nomination and get a real victory.”
Because the New York primary awards delegates proportionally by Congressional district, a strong showing in crucial areas could win delegates for Mr. Obama even if he loses the primary. And perhaps more than any other campaign this cycle, his campaign is relying on grass-roots involvement in New York and elsewhere to turn out voters.
The volunteers took part in a national canvassing day June 9 when thousands of supporters across the country tried to enlist others for Mr. Obama — people like Amanda Green, 28, a librarian from Brooklyn who wore the campaign’s logo painted on her toenails. She signed up supporters recently in Fort Greene. Those volunteers have helped Mr. Obama attract huge crowds at many of his early rallies.
The grass-roots organizing is proceeding parallel to efforts by the Obama campaign. In one effort to attract supporters, the campaign invited people to write a few words explaining why they wanted to meet Mr. Obama, for $5. Thousands of responses came in, aides said.
All the campaigns are trying to marshal volunteer supporters this year. The Clinton campaign, for example, arranges discussion meetings in the homes of supporters; holds large, inexpensive fund-raisers; and is organizing groups to go to New Hampshire.
But the Obama campaign is making its ability to mobilize large numbers of volunteers central to its campaign ethos. On its recent nationwide canvassing day, volunteers received campaign T-shirts that read, “In the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.”
Mr. Obama, who was a grass-roots organizer in his youth, places value on door-to-door, neighborhood-by-neighborhood campaigning. In a recent conference call with 400 volunteer leaders, he gave tips for canvassing (“stay hydrated,” and “don’t just talk but listen”).
“As tempting as it might be to think otherwise, this doesn’t just have to do with me,” Mr. Obama said during the call. “Change always comes from the bottom up, not the top down.”
There is debate among the other campaigns and bloggers about how much of a movement the Obama campaign has created. Jerome Armstrong, a liberal blogger, wrote recently on MyDD.com that Mr. Obama had not aligned himself with the “netroots” movement that began with the Dean campaign and that helped propel Ned Lamont’s Senate campaign in Connecticut last year.
Mr. Armstrong questioned whether the Obama grass-roots campaign was a movement at all. It “looks like a better-than-ordinary campaign for a candidate that’s personally compelling, and not much more,” he said.
But many of the volunteers who fanned out across New York City during the campaign’s “Walk for Change” said they felt that they were creating a movement.
Jordan Thomas, a 36-year-old from Brooklyn who works for a film production company, said that he enlisted in the campaign at 3 a.m. on Feb. 10, the day that Mr. Obama announced that he would run for president. On the campaign’s Web site, Mr. Thomas found a feature that allowed volunteers to start groups.
“And I thought, my god, this guy is turning his campaign over to the people,” Mr. Thomas said. “And I thought, wow, this guy really trusts the people. And so I put in ‘Brooklyn for Barack.’ ”
Despite the volunteer effort for Mr. Obama, the Clinton campaign said it had no fear of losing New York. “We’re gratified that poll after poll shows Hillary leading the primary in New York overwhelmingly, and that she is by far the most popular candidate in the state, from either party and among all walks of life,” said Blake Zeff, a campaign spokesman.