In scope and sweep, tactics and scale, the marathon struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton has triggered such a vast evolutionary leap in the way candidates pursue the presidency that it is likely to be remembered as the first true 21st-century campaign.
On virtually every front, the two candidates’ efforts dwarf those of all previous primary contenders—not to mention presumptive GOP nominee John McCain. It’s easy to miss the magnitude of the change amid the ferocity of the Democratic competition. But largely because of their success at organizing supporters through the Internet, Clinton and, especially, Obama are reaching new heights in raising money, recruiting volunteers, hiring staff, buying television ads, contacting voters, and generating turnout. They are producing changes in degree from prior primary campaigns so large that they amount to changes in kind.
“This campaign does look dramatically different from any previous campaign,” says veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “My guess is, it is a watershed. The next time somebody runs for president, it is going to look a lot more like this than like 2000 or 1996 or even 2004.”
The transformation is visible in every direction. Through the end of February, Obama had raised more than six times as much money as John Kerry, the last Democratic nominee, did through the first two months of 2004, and Clinton had collected more than five times as much. In state after state, the two campaigns are organizing levels of voter outreach through phone banks and door-to-door canvasses previously seen only in presidential general elections—if even then. And through e-mail and the distribution of online videos, the candidates are communicating directly with previously unimaginable numbers of voters: By early this month, videos produced by the Obama campaign had been viewed 37 million times on YouTube. “I’ve never been in an election where the capacity you have to go door to door, or register voters, or you name the task is this enormous,” says Paul Tewes, a veteran Democratic organizer who ran Obama’s Iowa and Ohio campaigns.
Each of these advances is rooted in the same fusion of passion and technology: the intense emotions generated among Democrats by George W. Bush’s polarizing presidency combined with the relentless advance of information technology. “If I had to boil down what has really happened in the election cycle, it is [that] you are finally seeing the real fruition of the full power of … the Internet on politics,” says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a Democratic group that studies campaign tactics and technology.
This surge of activity has helped to fuel record participation in the Democratic competition. With voters yet to go to the polls in eight states, Guam, and Puerto Rico, Obama and Clinton have already each won more primary-season votes than any Democratic nominee. This outburst of Democratic fervor also creates a challenge for Republicans, who pioneered some of these same organizing techniques in Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign but have nervously watched the Obama and Clinton outreach efforts far exceed those of the GOP’s 2008 contenders. The building of online volunteer and fundraising networks “has been taken to a new level in this campaign by the Democrats,” said GOP consultant Patrick Ruffini, who directed online campaigning for Bush in 2004 and the Republican National Committee in 2006. “And it’s something we are going to have to figure out.”
More fundamentally, this transformation may be changing the model of what it takes to succeed in presidential politics. Since the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and the rise of the 30-second TV commercial later in that decade, the ability to communicate effectively on television has arguably been the key to winning the White House; a close second has been the ability to tap big donors for the money to air plenty of TV ads. Those traits remain enormously valuable today.
But now the ability to inspire large numbers of supporters to work on your behalf—by contributing financially, participating in outreach programs organized by the campaign, or informally talking to friends and family—is joining and, perhaps, eclipsing those television-inspired skills in importance. The change is still incipient, but the unprecedented scale of the Clinton-Obama race suggests that presidential politics may be moving from the television-based network era to an Internet-based networked era in which candidates who can attract and inspire vast networks of supporters will enjoy potentially decisive advantages over those who cannot.
Many observers in both parties think that Obama has seized the advantage over Clinton and moved to the brink of winning their party’s nomination largely because he has aligned his campaign with the bottom-up principles of the networked era, while Clinton initially sought to run a more traditional, top-down campaign. Obama’s success against a rival who began the race with overwhelming advantages by most customary yardsticks—name identification, support from elected officials, and the backing of an established nationwide roster of donors—may go down in history as the tipping point in the way that presidential campaigns are organized and executed.
“I actually believe the Clinton campaign will be the last top-down campaign on the Democratic side,” says Joe Trippi, the veteran Democratic organizer who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and John Edwards’s effort this year. “Candidates are going to come into this understanding that they’ve got to figure out ways to be a bottom-up campaign and to make people understand that, ‘yes, you have a voice, and I want you to use your voice.’ ”
Reaching Past the Filters
Three interconnected, simultaneous trends are propelling this transformation in campaign strategies. The first is the increase in the Democratic campaigns’ capacity to raise money. The second is the increase in their capacity to identify and communicate with supporters at low cost. The third is the expanding capacity of the supporters themselves to communicate with large numbers of like-minded people and to pursue independent work for their candidate, undirected by a campaign.
Such activists as Barbara McCarren, a sculptor and an adjunct art professor at the University of Southern California, are driving the fundraising revolution. As she waited for an Obama rally to begin in Los Angeles on the Sunday before California’s February 5 primary, McCarren spoke in lyrical language about how much the senator from Illinois has inspired her. But she was bracingly concrete when explaining how she has expressed her commitment to his campaign: “Every time my husband and I are going to go out to dinner, we figure the average cost is about $80, so we just donate it to Barack instead.”
Contributing largely by credit card through the Internet, McCarren and other dedicated small donors have exploded the traditional assumptions about how much presidential candidates can raise and how they can raise it. Through February 2004, Bush, a sitting president, had raised $155 million and Kerry just $31 million, according to the Campaign Finance Institute at George Washington University. Through February 2008, Obama had collected $197 million and Clinton $174 million. (Obama has unofficially reported that he collected an additional $40 million in March, and Clinton says she collected about half of that.)
Among small donors, the institute’s analysis shows, the growth was even more amazing. Through February 2004, Kerry had raised $6 million in donations of $200 or less (about as much as Al Gore collected from such donors in his entire 2000 primary campaign), and Bush had raised $27 million from small contributors, according to the institute. Through February 2008, Obama had raised a whopping $76 million in donations of $200 or less. (For more on the transformation of campaign fundraising, see p. 36.)
The flood of contributions has allowed Obama and Clinton to invest more money in traditional ways of reaching voters. Through late March, the Democratic field had spent nearly $109 million on television advertising, more than twice as much as their party’s candidates four years ago and six times the amount spent in 2000, according to figures from TNSMI-Campaign Media Analysis Group. Staff size is growing almost as fast. Teresa Vilmain, who was in charge of Iowa for Clinton this year and for Michael Dukakis in 1988, says that Obama and Clinton each deployed more than twice as many staff members in the state as Kerry did four years ago and about four times as many as Dukakis did 20 years ago.
Probably even more significant than the rise in paid staff has been the deepening pool of volunteers. The former has contributed to the latter because one of the main jobs for organizers is to find unpaid help. But the difference this time has been the capacity of volunteers to find the campaigns through the Internet. When the Clinton campaign arrived in the Lone Star State, for instance, it already had the names of about 40,000 Texans who had signed up on its website to volunteer; for Obama, the figure was 125,000. In the past, campaigns might have spent months identifying so many volunteers.
Even as the number of paid staff members and volunteers has mushroomed, so has their efficiency. Previously, campaign phone banks were limited by their access to offices with large numbers of permanent lines. In California this year, the Clinton campaign organized hundreds of “BYOP” (bring your own phone) parties in which supporters gathered in private homes to make campaign calls on their cellphones. And both Obama and Clinton have aggressively used technology that allows supporters to call targeted voters from their own homes by accessing a list through a campaign website. The calls’ results are then instantly entered into a campaign’s database for follow-up. This capacity to distribute such work around the country has allowed the campaigns to free up local supporters for activities that require proximity, such as door-to-door canvassing.
This convergence of advancing technology and increasing numbers has allowed the candidates to mount voter-outreach campaigns unprecedented for the primaries. Out-of-state Clinton supporters made 625,000 phone calls into New Hampshire in the final five days before its first-in-the-nation primary in January. Immediately before California’s primary, Obama supporters called 100,000 voters a night. On primary day, the Clinton campaign called 1 million California voters. Obama’s volunteers knocked on 700,000 doors in Ohio on the weekend before that state’s primary.
These are the kinds of numbers that Democratic operatives normally don’t see until the final weeks of a general election campaign, if at all. “Because of the technology, you can really start to reach deep into the actual voter [pool] in a way that you couldn’t before in these huge national races,” says Averell (Ace) Smith, a veteran organizer who ran Clinton’s successful primary campaigns in California and Texas.
The Obama and Clinton campaigns are communicating directly with voters in previously unimaginable numbers. Probably even more significant than the rise in paid staff has been the deepening pool of volunteers. Republicans pioneered some high-tech outreach techniques in 2004 but are lagging.
The networked era is also extending the campaigns’ reach by enhancing their capacity to communicate directly with voters through e-mail, campaign websites, or online videos without relying on newspapers or television news shows to disseminate their message. Most Americans still obtain their information about the candidates through traditional media outlets (from television news to newspapers and their websites), and the campaigns still obsess over shaping the coverage delivered through those conduits. But, more and more, the candidates (and their critics) are demonstrating the capacity for mass communication without the mass media. As journalist Garrett Graff wrote in his perceptive recent book, The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, candidates are “reaching past the mass media to try to grab voters personally and let their own personalities shine.”
When Obama delivered his speech on race in response to the controversy surrounding his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his campaign posted a video and text of the address on its home page, sent an e-mail encouraging his entire list of supporters to watch or read those remarks, and urged those who did to forward the speech to friends and acquaintances. With that boost, the full 37-minute address has been viewed more than 5.2 million times on YouTube, giving Obama an audience exceeding those of any of the cable news networks. Of course, one reason Obama had to deliver the speech in the first place was that Wright’s sermons had touched off an online firestorm.
Media coverage of the controversy, and of Obama’s response to it, still significantly affected the public’s reaction, analysts agree. But to an extent unmatched in previous campaigns, the argument was joined around the news media rather than through conventional news sources. Micah Sifry, co-founder of TechPresident, a website that studies technology and politics, argues that this change amounts to a shift from “sound-bite” politics shaped by reporters, editors, producers, and commentators to “sound-blast” politics controlled by the combatants themselves. “I would hesitate to say the old system of broadcast politics is dead,” Sifry says. “But it is weaker. And we are in the middle of an interesting test of what matters more—the sound bite, or the sound blast.”
Clinton and Obama have both benefited from this history-making explosion of voter-driven campaign activity. But Obama has profited more. “We wouldn’t be in the game … without that grassroots support,” says Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager.
In unison, experts in technology and politics from both parties say that Obama’s campaign has set a new standard for effectively using the Internet to recruit and energize a vast network of supporters. Trippi, who helped devise Dean’s path-breaking online innovations in 2004, says that in retrospect that campaign “turned out to be nothing but the Wright brothers: We proved that you could fly.” By comparison, he says, “Obama really is landing a man on the moon.”
Obama’s campaign announced this week that it has topped 1.3 million individual donors, about one-third of whom have contributed more than once and only about 27,000 of whom have maxed out under federal campaign finance rules. (Dean attracted about 300,000 donors, Trippi says.) Similarly, about 750,000 people have signed up to work for the campaign through the sophisticated myBarackObama.com website.
MyBO, as Obama aides call it, allows supporters to run their own mini-campaigns—to call targeted voters, to establish their own Obama fundraising page, to organize their own campaign events, and to find (or start) the Obama clubs that have provided the foundation of the campaign’s outreach efforts. In all, Obama aides calculate that more than 2 million people have participated in the campaign in some way beyond simply voting.
Obama is such a strong online presence partly because he attracts young, affluent voters comfortable with the Internet. But as a former neighborhood organizer in Chicago, the candidate has also stressed building a sense of community among his supporters. His campaign has held drawings to pick which donors get to have dinner with him; has asked existing donors to match contributions from new donors and then put the two in touch; and has mounted “Camp Obama” sessions that brought in volunteers for training as organizers. “Everything we did was about community building and making it a stronger list,” says Meaghan Burdick, the campaign’s director of direct marketing.
Most important, Obama has empowered his volunteers to an unusual extent. All of the 2008 presidential campaigns make available on their websites the basic tools offered through MyBO. But the Obama campaign gives supporters unprecedented leeway to use them.
In California, the campaign gave its 5,000 precinct captains access to its statewide list of volunteers, so they could organize the unpaid workers in their precinct. The campaign even let the captains authorize other volunteers to access the list. In Texas, the campaign allowed its precinct captains to access the list of targeted voters in their area as well as the roster of volunteers—and then let them decide how to contact the targets. “The scale of this is not anything anybody’s tried before—giving this many people this much control over the campaign,” said Joe Rospars, a young veteran of the Dean campaign now serving as Obama’s new-media director.
Perhaps even more significant than the authority that Obama’s campaign has ceded is the initiative that his supporters have seized. Several of the most memorable videos associated with Obama were created and released by supporters working without authorization from his staff: the Apple computer ad parody that portrayed Hillary Clinton as an ominous 1984-style Big Brother; the frothy “Obama Girl” video; and the star-studded “Yes We Can” video devised by musician will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. Together, these three videos have been viewed about 26 million times on YouTube alone. By comparison, the most celebrated Clinton video, a witty parody of the final scene from The Sopranos, was produced and posted by the campaign itself and has attracted only about 1 million hits.
The same self-starting impulse has benefited Obama on the ground. The foundation for his Texas organization was a book club established by two friends in Austin. In Idaho, local supporters had been meeting for eight months before Obama sent his first staffer to the state and had organized themselves so effectively that they even found a suitable campaign office before the aide arrived.
Mitchell Schwartz, a veteran California operative who ran Obama’s campaign in his state, was at a birthday party in December when a friend showed him a leaflet that Obama canvassers had left in his door. It was the first that Schwartz had heard of the leaflet—or the canvass. “They were just doing it on their own,” he said. “People feel it is their campaign, they want to get the guy elected, why should they wait for us to tell them what to do?”
Inspiration and Innovation
Hillary Clinton, by any past standard, has built an enormous organization as well, and her staff defiantly insists that in states where both campaigns have fully engaged, such as California, Ohio, and Texas, it has surpassed the performance of the Obama forces. “In the places we both played in, I believe we have outorganized them,” says Guy Cecil, Clinton’s national field director.
Clinton’s initial efforts to attract support through the Internet were often criticized as stilted, but as the race has proceeded, her campaign has put more emphasis on building a grassroots network. After she revealed in early February that a cash crunch had compelled her to lend her campaign $5 million, Clinton collected more in donations of $200 or less during the remainder of that month than she had during the entire race up to that point.
“The next time somebody runs for president, it is going to look a lot more like this than like 2000 or 1996 or even 2004.”--—Democratic pollster Mark Mellman
Even so, most observers agree, Clinton hasn’t matched the overall level of volunteer activity on Obama’s behalf, especially the independent work undirected by the campaign. That bottom-up advantage has contributed to Obama’s dominance of the caucus states.
“Clinton is essentially a top-down campaign trying to adapt to this new era,” Trippi says. “But they haven’t pioneered a whole lot.” One senior Clinton aide offers a similar assessment: “They were on [the Internet] much faster than we were.… We were just behind and never caught up.”
Compared with either Democrat, McCain is in an even more challenging position. His campaign badly trails theirs on all gauges of networked activity—whether measured by his presence on social-networking sites, online views of his videos (about 3 million through early April, one-twelfth the number for Obama), or small-donor fundraising (just $7.4 million through February, a deficit of almost 15-to-1 when compared with the money Clinton and Obama have raised combined). Operating on a tight budget during the GOP primaries, McCain’s campaign couldn’t match the massive volunteer operations that Clinton and Obama have constructed. “When you look at the magnitude of [the McCain operation], it’s nothing like what the Democrats have achieved,” says Terry Nelson, the field director for Bush’s 2004 re-election effort and a former McCain campaign manager.
For Republicans, the ways in which the McCain campaign lags are a source of both irony and frustration. In his 2000 presidential bid, McCain was a pioneer in raising money over the Internet. (His fledging efforts helped inspire Trippi’s interest in the medium as a political tool.) And the GOP had outperformed Democrats among small donors ever since direct mail emerged as a major political weapon in the 1970s: The Republican National Committee collected significantly more in small donations than the Democratic National Committee in 2006 and still leads by almost 2-to-1 in this election cycle, according to Campaign Finance Institute calculations. And in 2004, Bush’s campaign built a state-of-the-art grassroots alliance of 1.4 million volunteers that chief Bush political strategist Karl Rove cited as a decisive factor in the president’s re-election.
Republican officials acknowledge that the GOP network has since atrophied, and some doubt whether McCain, who has sparred regularly with some fellow conservatives, can inspire enough enthusiasm to rebuild it, especially because he has little organization to transfer from the primaries. But Rich Beeson, the RNC’s political director, says he’s confident that the party will generate enough recruits to power an effective get-out-the-vote campaign this fall. “I am not nervous about what [Democrats] can do as compared to what we can do,” he insists.
But Democratic operatives, watching the tidal wave of participation in the party’s primaries and caucuses, are growing increasingly confident that the eventual Democratic nominee will motivate substantially more grassroots activity than the Republican candidate will. “In the general election, I think you will have field and voter-contact programs that are at a scale unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Clinton field director Cecil says.
Tad Devine, a veteran Democratic operative who advised Kerry in 2004, recalls that the senator from Massachusetts raised about $5 million on the Internet during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. “Imagine what is going to happen this time,” Devine says. “I would say $10 million, but that is too conservative.”
Some Republicans worry that even if the RNC can narrow the Democratic advantage in the operations directly under the parties’ control, it may still be unable to come anywhere near matching the Democratic nominee’s undirected volunteer activity. “Because of their activist community, the Democrats have done a better job of building those organic networks than Republicans have,” Nelson says. Sifry thinks that McCain may now trail the Democrats by as much as 10-to-1 in the number “of people fighting the fight on his behalf every day.”
“We proved [with Howard Dean’s campaign] that you could fly. Obama really is landing a man on the moon.”--—Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic organizer
In this new networked era, the number of supporters making the case for their candidate on social-networking sites, creating and forwarding online videos, donating to the candidate, volunteering at home or at campaign headquarters, or simply talking up the candidate to friends and family is becoming a critical measure of campaign success. If inspiring such networks was the sole determinant of victory, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas would be the Republican nominee. Nevertheless, in the mix of skills that a presidential candidate must master—raising money, communicating on television, understanding policy—generating mass activity is growing in significance.
That may be the real message of Obama’s ascent. His aides insist that he has emerged not because they have mastered new technology but because he has inspired so many people. That’s difficult to dispute, but it misses the interaction between inspiration and innovation. What’s happening is that the growth of Internet technology is multiplying the reward for candidates who can arouse the kind of passion that Obama has. Gary Hart generated a lot of excitement in the 1984 Democratic race, but without the Internet to magnify and spread it, he fell short.
Today a candidate who sparks such enthusiasm can more easily convert it into tangible assistance with fundraising and outreach to voters. Such activism, of course, isn’t a guarantee of victory, in the primaries or the general election. But the ability to inspire large numbers of supporters is likely to become an increasingly powerful force in presidential politics—helping to determine which candidates rise or fall in much the same way that the ability to perform on television or to raise big-dollar donations has done for the past half-century.
The growth of these networks may even be rewriting the definition of what constitutes a campaign. Leyden, the Democratic analyst, notes that presidential campaigns have historically been “run by these 200 staffers, usually in their 20s, sitting in a war room … essentially moving the candidate around.” Those players, of course, remain critical. But, Leyden says, by this fall they may be sharing the stage with literally “millions of people waking up saying my job today is going to be doing this or that” to elect their candidate—with or without instructions from campaign headquarters. Amid all of that independent initiative, GOP strategist Ruffini agrees, “what we’re seeing is the campaign committee and the campaign staff being a smaller piece of the pie in terms of dictating what kind of activity goes on.”
This shift is, in many respects, unsettling for presidential campaign managers and strategists, who traditionally crave control. And it could present candidates with nearly as many problems as opportunities—such as the shadowy, accusatory e-mails that have (inaccurately) portrayed Obama as a Muslim. But after this year it may be as implausible to try to win the White House without a strategy for building a mass network of supporters as it was to try to win after 1960 without a plan for communicating on television.
Maybe the most profound effect of the networked era is that it is re-engaging millions of regular Americans in the political process—or engaging them for the first time. That movement seems unlikely to end on Election Day. Trippi, who has proven voluble and visionary in equal measure, foresees the possibilities. Imagine, he says, the next Inaugural Address: The new president “lays down his agenda and says, ‘I need you to be with me.’ ” Millions of the president’s supporters not only watch the speech but also communicate with each other online and join (or launch) efforts to mobilize support for the proposals. The network amplifies the president’s voice, connects and energizes his supporters, and focuses pressure on Congress.
“It is possible that … years from now we will look back and say that this was the first interactive president and the change of an era,” Trippi says. “You now have more and more people who understand that they can affect other people by using these tools. That’s growing. And it’s not going to go back into a bottle.”
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal.