Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Obama's formula: It's the network"

Christi Parsons and John McCormick (Chicago Tribune):
WASHINGTON — Joe Rospars, a young Internet-savvy operative, sat on an unpacked box in his new apartment on the morning of Feb. 10, 2007, excitedly watching two screens.
On television, his new boss, Sen. Barack Obama, was announcing that he wanted to be the next president of the United States. On Rospars' laptop, a dashboard of statistics was constantly updating, measuring visitors to the Web site he'd just helped launch. Click after click, a trickle became a flood.

Not only would thousands visit that day, but within 24 hours a staggering 1,000 of them would register the formation of an Obama group in their town.

"You see 'Idaho for Obama' pop up and you start thinking, 'We might be on to something,' " Rospars recalled. "You could just see it in the first few hours that something was happening."

That moment marked an important convergence, a politician with transformational potential meeting a technology with its own unprecedented possibilities. The Obama campaign would cross many such markers in the months to come: record fundraising of nearly $200 million, colossal crowds of up to 75,000, 1.5 million donors, 4.45 million views of its most viral video.

Since that first day, though, architects of the Obama campaign have avoided comparing their milestones to what came before. "We threw out the precedents," Rospars said.

These days, having won a majority of the Democratic Party's elected convention delegates, the Obama team is turning to Part 2 of its quest for the White House. Behind the scenes, the vetting process for potential vice presidential candidates has begun, while staff members make room for a continued stream of new hires. Already, the Michigan Avenue headquarters is getting crowded. Obama's strategic focus is clearly on the fall general election as the story moves beyond a historic primary season.

Defying 'inevitability'
When the narrative began that February day on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, it was with a sense of grand ambition that bordered on hubris. Even many fans thought Obama was too inexperienced to win, too small in the face of the political dynasty he was challenging.

Like the Illinois forebear who got his start in the same prairie capital, though, Obama had both a message for the times and an understanding of how to deliver it. He, too, was a man meeting his moment—not to mention his medium.

"When Abraham Lincoln started out, there was also a sense of inevitability about another candidate," said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, referring to New York Sen. William Seward. "But he understood the skills it took to beat the more experienced candidate, and he went state to state giving speeches and building a following. That is clearly what Obama has done."

From the very beginning, the people crafting Obama's strategy were thinking about exactly that: how their candidate might get around a Democratic power structure that favored rival Sen. Hillary Clinton and talk directly to voters.

Obama and his message already had demonstrated popular appeal. His tour of Africa in 2006 attracted the scrutiny that usually attends presidential visits. His books were best sellers, and fellow Democrats had clamored for him to campaign for them.

"We wanted this to be a grass-roots campaign, a campaign of people," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

Internet raked in funds
Most of all, the Obama campaign intended to exploit the growing power of the Internet. They hired a Facebook founder to help run, the campaign's social networking site. They brought on a former journalist to blog.

And when a CNN producer asked for access to film a documentary on Obama, the campaign offered her a job doing that for their own Web site. The campaign planned to take in money and information online—but they wanted the conversation to go both ways, to have what they took to calling a "holistic relationship."

Two months into the effort, it was clear those 1,000-plus Obama groups would not just make a splash—as had Howard Dean's Internet supporters four years earlier—but would help raise money in unprecedented sums.

Obama took in $25 million in the first quarter of 2007 from 104,000 donors, more than half contributing via the Internet, giving Obama instant credibility. One year later, 1.5 million people had contributed.

But the online supporters were doing something else too. In their homes, with their weekend cell phone minutes, on their laptops, some without even getting out of their pajamas, they were campaigning for Obama.

The campaign's Web site offered online training for phone-banking and provided supporters with names and numbers of targeted voters. The campaign blasted out responses to criticism in digestible bites, easily forwarded to a supporter's contact list or a friend with a question.

"There can be a tendency in campaigns to keep things closely held, or you can accept the risk and move forward," said Plouffe. "Our belief was that personal contact was the important thing."

The online groups formed ready-made networks in every state. Staffers landed in those states to help organize. And that would prove crucial to Obama's tactical strategy.

Steady despite stumbles
In the early days of the campaign, Obama struggled. Reviews of the early debates called Clinton "commanding," while Obama came off as deferential and prone to missteps.

As the campaign churned on, critics wondered whether the junior senator from Illinois was up to the challenge. Last fall was especially rough, as Clinton surpassed Obama in fundraising and outstripped him in national polls.

Oddly enough, Obama thinks that is when he began to take off.

"After the summer, into the fall, I became much more comfortable talking about why I was running and what particular skills and vision I brought to the race," he told the Tribune the day before his crucial win in the Iowa caucuses. "That, I think, helped clarify my message of change."

He tried not to get "too up" when things were going well, he said, nor "too down" when they weren't. "Relative calm has, I think, been embedded in the culture of our campaign," Obama said.

There was no spate of firings when things seemed bleak. Obama, Plouffe and top strategist David Axelrod aimed for what Obama called "a steady execution."

Small victories
Obama's win in Iowa signaled to potential supporters that he could attract white voters. And his defeat in New Hampshire a few days later was the first hint that this might be a long, drawn-out primary season.

The senator watched the disappointing numbers roll in alongside his wife, Michelle, his sister Auma, and Valerie Jarrett, an adviser and close family friend.

"People were in shock. We were not prepared for it," Jarrett said. She looked over to see that Obama was going quietly from person to person.

When he got to Jarrett, she said, "He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the face and said, 'This will prove to be a good thing. ... We are going to have to redouble our efforts.' "

No one in politics guessed what would follow. Obama and Clinton were embarking on a long, rocky road through the primary states, where they would trade victories and split the vote.

Even Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, the night the Obamas feared the most, ended with what looked like a draw. Clinton won the grand prize of California, while Obama took more states around the country. In retrospect, however, Super Tuesday was perhaps the pivotal victory for Obama; by failing to knock him off, Clinton opened the door to his strategy of steadily accumulating delegates through small states and caucuses.

By the Texas and Ohio primaries a month later, a clear pattern showed Obama was favored among African-Americans, wealthy voters and those with college degrees, while Clinton was more often the choice of older and blue-collar voters as well as white women. Clinton also scored some successes by dismissing Obama's impassioned rhetoric as "just words," with little substance behind them.

Along the way, his audiences were large and adoring. One afternoon, before a crowd of 17,000, Obama took a break to blow his nose. The audience applauded.

As crucial as the Internet was to this effort, it could also turn on the candidate. Early on, e-mail folklore developed about Obama's life as a Muslim. The truth — that he is a Christian who has never practiced Islam—was no match in some quarters for the electronic chain letters.

The Internet also gave life to the most damaging story to arise about Obama, originally on cable television. The controversial highlights of sermons by Obama's longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., were available on YouTube at all hours.

The first YouTube election
Now that he is entering the general election, Obama hopes the prairie fire ignited by his announcement in Lincoln's hometown will spread.

Ted Sorensen, former speechwriter to John F. Kennedy, thinks it will.

"At the root of all this is his remarkable ability to transcend traditional politics and reach across lines—regional, political, racial—just as John F. Kennedy did," said Sorensen, author of the new book "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History." "When Kennedy, the 'Catholic candidate,' won in Protestant West Virginia, that electrified the country."

What is sometimes missed in Obama's story is that his message of change was ideally suited to the new medium of the Internet, with its appeal to young people and independents. While Dean had had to develop his own video tools, YouTube was up, running and ready to spread everything from Obama's 37-minute speech on race to the award-winning video by setting the candidate's words to music.

"Obama didn't just defeat any top-down campaign," said Joe Trippi, the original manager of Dean's pioneering campaign. "He beat the best top-down campaign in Democratic Party history, by far. And the Obama campaign puts them on their heels. If they had tried the old way, they would have raised $40 million bucks and been dead."

The country has seen this before, Goodwin noted. Obama used more modern tools than Lincoln, she said, but he dealt in the same currency.

"It shows there's still a hunger in people," she said, "to be inspired by words."



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