Inside the grass-roots field operation of Barack Obama, who is transforming the way political campaigns are run--It's Presidents day, two weeks before the Texas primary, and Adam Ukman has come to the small city of San Marcos to train precinct captains for Barack Obama. A soft-spoken native of Houston, Ukman has served on the campaign's front lines in Iowa and Utah, organizing grass-roots supporters to secure decisive victories in both states. This evening, more than eighty residents of San Marcos have crammed into a yellow clapboard recreation center on a street dotted with shacks that date from the Jim Crow era. "Our job is not to run in here to tell you how it's going to be," Ukman tells them. "This is your campaign. Not our campaign."
Anyone who has spent time around Democratic politics has heard this kind of rhetoric before. Most often, it's pure horseshit. But Ukman is not here to break in a batch of untrained organizers. He knows that there is literally hundreds of years of organizing experience in the room — all he needs to do is set it loose. There's Michael Collins, an old-school politico in a tan Stetson who chaired John F. Kennedy's campaign in West Texas in 1960. A few seats over is Sandra Tenorio, who oversaw immigration issues for Gov. Ann Richards in the 1990s. And there's "Big Bob" Barton, a fixture of local party races since he worked as a volunteer for Gene McCarthy in '68. "I first voted for a Democrat more than fifty years ago," he barks out in his dry baritone. "I try not to fall in love with too many men, but this is the best damn one we've had since John Kennedy."
What Ukman is doing here in the rec center in the Hill Country of Texas is something new in American politics. Over the past year, the Obama campaign has quietly worked to integrate the online technologies that fueled the rise of Howard Dean —as well as social-networking and video tools that didn't even exist in 2004 — with the kind of neighbor-to-neighbor movement-building that Obama learned as a young organizer on the streets of Chicago. "That's the magic of what they've done," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN. "They've married the incredibly powerful online community they built with real on-the-ground field operations. We've never seen anything like this before in American political history."
In the process, the Obama campaign has shattered the top-down, command-and-control, broadcast-TV model that has dominated American politics since the early 1960s. "They have taken the bottom-up campaign and absolutely perfected it," says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Dean's Internet campaign in 2004. "It's light-years ahead of where we were four years ago. They'll have 100,000 people in a state who have signed up on their Web site and put in their zip code. Now, paid organizers can get in touch with people at the precinct level and help them build the organization bottom up. That's never happened before. It never was possible before."
The meeting in San Marcos wasn't advertised in any traditional sense. Instead, the campaign posted the event on my.barackobama.com — its social-networking site affectionately known as "MyBo" — and e-mailed local residents who had donated to the campaign or surrendered their addresses as the price of admission to an Obama rally. And the volunteers who showed up won't be micromanaged by Ukman or anyone else from the campaign. They'll be able to call their own shots, from organizing local rallies to recruiting and training a crew of fellow Obama supporters to man their precincts on election day. To identify and mobilize Obama backers, they'll log on to the password-protected texasprecinctcaptains.com, download the phone numbers of targeted voters, make calls from their homes and upload the results to Austin headquarters. They'll also organize early-voting open houses — which will be publicized on MyBo — to boost turnout among core supporters. "Instead of hoping that your neighbors vote," Ukman tells them in an unintentional twist on the campaign's central theme, "you're going to take them to the polls."
This scene in the rec center is being repeated in neighborhood coffee shops, high school cafeterias and public libraries across Texas. Over the course of the three-day weekend, the Obama campaign trained 4,000 precinct captains in more than twenty communities, from El Paso to Corpus Christi. This is the same grass-roots effort that has trounced the Clinton campaign — a classic top-down operation run by high-paid consultants — in ten straight contests by an average of more than thirty points. It has evolved into the mother of all get-out-the-vote campaigns, one that has enabled Obama to collect more votes in Virginia and Wisconsin than all of the GOP candidates combined.
In Texas, Tenorio is hearing from fellow Richards veterans who are backing Hillary Clinton, and they're worried. "They don't have precinct captains," she says. "They don't have a local organization, and they're still trying to get names. They're really scrambling to put it together — and here we all are."
The Obama campaign has actually worked to tamp down media coverage of its technological advances in organizing, avoiding anything that would cast the candidate as "the next Howard Dean." In Democratic political circles, Dean's short-lived campaign still carries heavy baggage: Howard Dean was the Internet. Howard Dean lost.
"They've been guarded," says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank that promotes technology in politics. "It's been beautiful to watch them blending these new tools into the old-fashioned shoe-leather, door-knocking politics. But they don't talk about it. People like myself have to piece it together from its outer effects."
In recent weeks, however, the campaign has granted Rolling Stone rare access to its top strategists and organizers, who discussed in detail the mechanics of Obama's meteoric ascendancy. According to David Axelrod, the campaign's chief strategist, the bottom-up ethos of the campaign comes straight from the top. "When we started this race, Barack told us that he wanted the campaign to be a vehicle for involving people and giving them a stake in the kind of organizing he believed in," Axelrod says. "He is still the same guy who came to Chicago as a community organizer twenty-three years ago. The idea that we can organize together and improve our country — I mean, he really believes that."
To execute this vision, Obama hired as his deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, a folksy veteran of South Dakota politics regarded as one of the top field strategists in the game. "We wanted to make sure we learned from Howard Dean's campaign," Hildebrand says. The most valuable lesson? "We didn't make the assumption that people signing up on our Web site meant that they were going to help the candidate or even vote for him. From the beginning, we had an initiative to take our online force offline."
Hildebrand actually flipped the equation, using the physical crowds Obama could draw to his rallies to bolster the campaign's e-mail list. In February and March of 2007, just after Obama announced his candidacy, the campaign set up huge rallies in cities from Los Angeles to Austin to Cleveland. In return for a ticket, supporters were asked only to provide their e-mail, zip code and telephone number — a practice that continues at every Obama megarally, where it has become routine for him to draw crowds in excess of 20,000.
"Events are not just an opportunity for us to put Barack in front of voters," says Hildebrand. "It's a chance for voters to be in a captive environment where we ask them to sign up and do more for Barack — to make phone calls, canvas, get out the vote. We don't want people to just come to an event — we want them to become part of this movement."
The turnout at the early rallies emboldened Obama's strategists to start imagining a truly different kind of campaign. At first, Hildebrand and Temo Figueroa, the campaign's field director, wrestled with how to harness the nationwide groundswell of support without taking their eyes off Iowa, which they considered a win-or-go-home state. But then the campaign's first-quarter fund-raising numbers rolled in — $25 million. Suddenly, Hildebrand and Figueroa could afford to build the kind of fully participatory field campaign Obama had envisioned — one that set its horizons beyond Iowa and Super Tuesday. According to Hans Riemer, the campaign's youth-vote director, "The mantra was, 'If the same people show up that always show up — we're gonna lose.' We needed to build a new coalition of voters."
Riemer is no stranger to turning out young voters; he's the former political director of Rock the Vote. In most Democratic campaigns, the youth-vote coordinator is a symbolic post, not staffed until the general election, and often by one of the candidate's kids. Riemer, by contrast, has two deputy directors, has youth-vote staff in every state, and answers to the campaign's top brass.
"Steve Hildebrand, in shaping the campaign strategy from the outset, saw that there was an amazing opportunity here with Barack and young people," says Riemer. Turnout has been astonishing: In Iowa, as many people under thirty caucused as did senior citizens. In every contest, the youth vote has at least doubled and often tripled previous records. Riemer is quick to point out that these successes aren't just the result of the campaign organizing young people but of young people organizing themselves. "When I arrived at the Obama campaign," he says, "there were 175 Students for Barack Obama chapters already in existence" — a group that had started on Facebook in 2006 before morphing into a sophisticated grass-roots organization. "My responsibility was to nurture it and work with them on their political strategy."
As summer approached, Hildebrand and Figueroa gave the campaign's unorthodox field operation a test run. While John Edwards and Hillary Clinton were busy barnstorming Iowa and New Hampshire, the Obama campaign sent out an e-mail asking its supporters to sign up for a day of old-fashioned door-knocking and precinct-walking across the entire country. The result: On a Saturday in early June — six months before anyone would cast a ballot or attend a caucus — more than 10,000 Obama supporters hit the pavement in all fifty states to persuade their neighbors to back Barack.
"That was a very important test for us," says Hildebrand. "Can we make this work offline? We said to our online supporters, 'We love you, but we need you to actually go to work in your neighborhood.' Their online support was only great if we could translate it into activity within their community."
At the same time, the campaign was developing a new high-tech toolbox to enable its supporters to keep the momentum going — both online and off. With the help of one of the founders of Facebook, the Obama campaign created, MyBo, its own social-networking tool, through which supporters could organize themselves however they saw fit. Today, the network claims more than half a million members and more than 8,000 affinity groups. Some are organized by state (Ohioans for Obama), others by profession (Texas Business Women for Obama) and still others by groove thing (Soul Music Lovers for Obama).
"We put these tools online as a public utility," says Joe Rospars, the campaign's twenty-six-year-old director of new media, who served as one of Howard Dean's chief online organizers. "We said to our supporters, 'Have at it.' "
That move unleashed supporters to mobilize on their own — and they did, in unprecedented numbers. Before long, the campaign had transformed hundreds of thousands of online donors into street-level activists. "Obama didn't just take their money," says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "He gave them seats at the table and allowed them to become players."
Equally important, Obama didn't build his machine by sucking up to the online activists who had been courted by Howard Dean — he built it from scratch. "I kind of admire that he hasn't wasted a lot of time kissing ass to make a bunch of bloggers happy," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential blog Daily Kos. "I can't blame the guy. He's got other ways to reach people."
For Axelrod, a veteran of old-school politics, tapping the potential of the Internet meant changing the established notion of how a campaign runs. "Part of this new era of politics has been learning how to surrender command-and-control aspects of the campaign," he says. "If you really want grass-roots participation, then you have to give folks at the grass roots some autonomy to do this in their own way. We had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who wanted to do things. The challenge was: How do you marshal them in an organized fashion?"
Cuauhtémoc "Temo" Figueroa hardly looks like the kind of guy who would lead an army of grass-roots supporters. A compact forty-three-year-old with a shaved head and a stockbroker's wardrobe — gray-pinstriped dress shirt, impeccably knotted silver silk tie — Figueroa still speaks in the foulmouthed vernacular of the kickass union organizer he used to be. These days, as national field director for Obama, he serves as Gen. Patton for the campaign's growing legions of activists.
This afternoon, Figueroa is in San Antonio, where he has been working all day recruiting Hispanic politicians who support Obama to get down to Texas. Their endorsements, he tells them straight off, don't mean shit to him. He wants them to come to the Rio Grande Valley and go to work: speaking at Elks clubs, attending church picnics and baptisms, reaching out to Spanish-language weeklies that never get any love.
"I always give people at least ten things to do," he tells me, sitting in a tamales-and-margaritas joint along the river, where he has set up a makeshift field office for the day. "Because either it'll scare them off, or they'll start doin' a handful of 'em. Right?"
Figueroa's goal is not to put supporters to work but to enable them to put themselves to work, without having to depend on the campaign for constant guidance. "We decided that we didn't want to train volunteers," he says. "We want to train organizers — folks who can fend for themselves."
To turn well-meaning students and nurses and social workers into self-sufficient organizers, the campaign has put nearly 7,000 supporters through an intensive, four-day seminar known as "Camp Obama." Starting last March, the campaign solicited applications from its most dedicated supporters and asked them to travel to Chicago on their own dime. In exchange, these "campers" would learn the art of organizing from master teachers, including Mike Kruglik, who, a quarter-century ago, helped train a fresh-faced community organizer named Barack Obama.
"Early on, there was some question as to whether this was a good investment," says Figueroa. "But all of those questions went away very quickly; you just saw how fired up people were after finishing that." Responding to demand among activists, the campaign quickly took Camp Obama on the road to Super Tuesday states: New York, Georgia, Idaho, California, Missouri, Arizona.
To staff the seminars, the campaign brought in Harvard professors, union organizers, religious leaders — each of whom was free to tweak the curriculum. "You had the best, most brilliant folks from faith-based organizing, online organizing, community-based organizing and union organizing all collectively coming together to work on Camp Obamas," says Figueroa.
The result was a network of trained organizers who became what Figueroa calls the campaign's "secret weapon." Early on, the volunteers essentially served as Obama's staff in key states where he didn't have employees. "It quadrupled the size of our operation in states that were going to be voting not only on February 5th, but February 9th, February 12th and here on March 4th," Figueroa says. "We had an anchor in those states for a long, long, long time."
Using the social-networking tools of MyBo, the volunteers began to create city- and statewide networks with names like IdahObama, groups that could be tapped later by the professional staff to organize down to the precinct level. In Maryland, the campaign was able to mobilize 3,000 volunteers in only three weeks, thanks to the months of groundwork by groups like Baltimore for Barack Obama.
A strategy that leans so heavily on the grass roots is not without risk. In February, right-wing blogs had a field day when a Fox News affiliate ran footage of a volunteer office in Houston decorated with a Che Guevara flag. But the unique structure of the Obama campaign blunts the PR fallout of such off-message moments because it offers plausible deniability: "This is a volunteer office," the campaign wrote in a press release that forced a clarification from Fox, "that is not in any way controlled by the Obama campaign."
"There's no doubt that there's a downside to the Internet," Axelrod says. "Ugly, unfiltered things circulate virally, and we've had to deal with that. But it's a great democratizing force as well."
Obama's army of organizers has enabled him to repeatedly outman and outwit his opponents — especially in states that vote by caucus. "The Clinton campaign is the last, antiquated vestige of the top-down model," says Trippi. "The top cannot organize caucus states; the bottom can."
As Super Tuesday approached, the Obama campaign understood that the Clinton strategy was to try to deliver a deathblow by winning big states like California, New York and New Jersey through a traditional campaign driven by thirty-second TV spots and tarmac-to-tarmac appearances by the candidate and her surrogates. The Obama team was confident that it had both the ad budget and the precinct-by-precinct support to capture delegates in states like California, whether or not they won the popular vote. They also recognized that, even with her paid staff of 700, Clinton didn't have the manpower to compete against Obama's grass-roots organizers in the caucus states.
So in the lead-up to Super Tuesday, Obama spent only a day and a half in California. "The decision was made to pull Obama out and send him to those caucus states and run up the score," says Figueroa. In Idaho, the Obama campaign ramped up its staff to twenty paid organizers split among five field offices. It also brought in the candidate to pack the Taco Bell Arena in Boise with more than 13,000 supporters — each of whom was added to the campaign's get-out-the-caucus list. The Clinton campaign, apparently, failed to hire a single staffer in the state. The result: Obama won with eighty percent of the vote, netting fifteen of the state's eighteen delegates. While Clinton was spending lavishly to win New Jersey with 600,000 votes, Obama more than offset his delegate loss there simply by mobilizing 17,000 Idahoans to caucus for him. "The Clinton campaign made a fundamental mistake by writing states off," says Hildebrand.
Having wrestled the Clinton campaign to a draw through Super Tuesday, the Obama campaign suddenly found itself in a dominant position. Thanks to the field campaign set in motion by Hildebrand and Figueroa, Obama had effective grass-roots organizations in place in each of the next ten states. Clinton, by contrast, had no plan, no money and no real grass-roots organization. Even worse for Clinton, the only state whose demographics truly favored her was Maine, a caucus. "Both campaigns thought it was better territory for her, and we were pretty nervous about it," admits Hildebrand. "She was spending a lot of time there, she had staff there." But demographics proved no match for Obama's field organization. Clinton lost Maine — by nineteen points.
"We saw early that, because of the energy that we were evoking, the caucuses would be a great opportunity for us," says Axelrod. "And not just in Iowa. So for months out, we had organizers in these caucus states, and the Clinton campaign had . . . nothing." By contrast, says Figueroa, "the philosophy of our campaign from the beginning was to compete for every vote. Not cede any precinct, any county, anywhere. And it got us to where we are now." Clinton has since complained that caucuses are "dominated by activists" who "don't represent the electorate." But that bellyaching, says Trippi, "is pure cover for 'We blew it.' If you can win a precinct just by getting ten people there — and that's true — then why the hell didn't she get ten people there?"
Adds Moulitsas of Daily Kos, "I don't know how a candidate can say she'll be ready to lead on Day One, when she can't even organize a simple caucus."
In the days leading up to the Texas primary, Clinton appeared equally unprepared for the contest there. Leaks from exasperated donors made clear that the campaign, drooling over the state's large trove of Hispanic voters, was largely clueless about the complex, hybrid nature of the election in Texas. Of the state's 193 delegates, only 126 are awarded on the basis of the primary vote. But since those are apportioned on the basis of turnout in past elections, few of the delegates are available in low-voting Hispanic districts that favor Clinton.
The rest of the delegates will be decided by caucus, which begins immediately after the primary polls close on Election Night. Since the caucus is open only to those who vote in the primary, the Obama campaign is urging its supporters to cast their ballots in the state's ten-day window for early voting. "I'll tell you what we're doing — inside campaign information," Ukman tells his new precinct captains at the training in San Marcos. "The elections officials publish a list of those who voted early. With that list, we can follow up and get our people to the caucus."
As it did in Super Tuesday states, Obama's field organization in Texas has enabled his campaign staff to mobilize an army of supporters in a matter of weeks. When Figueroa arrived in San Antonio to organize volunteers, he found a group called AlamObama already up and running. "We show up last week with our organizers," Figueroa tells me, "and the AlamObama people are all like, 'Great. Welcome to the party. Here's what we're doing, here's what we need to do.' They're telling us. They're incredibly structured. And you know why? They went to Camp Obama."
No group represents the campaign machine that Obama has built better than AlamObama. A year ago, the group was nothing more than eight people who attended an informal get-together at a Borders bookstore. Today, it's a 600-member grass-roots outfit — an all-volunteer field operation that hums with the energy and efficiency of a fully staffed campaign office. "In Iowa, the campaign was on the ground for six months," says Judy Hall, a college professor who co-founded the group. "They come here, and it's like they've already been on the ground for six months. Those of us in the grass roots, we simply minded the store.
"Well," she says, reconsidering her words, "I guess we actually built the store — but that's what this campaign is all about."
As Hall's well-honed operation makes clear, the Obama campaign has succeeded not by attracting starry-eyed followers who place their faith in hope but by motivating committed activists who are answering a call to national service. They're pouring their lifeblood into this campaign, not because they are in thrall to a cult of personality but because they're invested in the idea that politics matter, and that their participation can turn the current political system on its ear.
In reality, it already has. "We're seeing the last time a top-down campaign has a chance to win it," says Trippi. "There won't be another campaign that makes the same mistake the Clintons made of being dependent on big donors and insiders. It's not going to work ever again."