Regardless of whether Barack Obama captures the Democratic nomination and/or the presidency (and I hope he does), there is an fascinating book to be written about how he has reinvented the art of campaigning. To be sure, much of his success is in the power of his charisma and the message about Americans seeking greater unity. (Polling that we have done over the last several years has shown that Americans feel deeply divided by race, economics and religion and deeply uncomfortable about that. Hence Barack’s message that Americans are “purple“, rather than a collection of “red “and “blue” individuals, resonates deeply.)
Barack has deeply reinvigorated Americans in his campaign, as seen from the broad swathe of younger Americans that he has enfranchised, or as seen by his shattering of records of the numbers of Americans who have been moved to donate (and most of them online!). It’s a trend that Howard Dean began, but which has been carried to a whole new level, as even Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s campaign manager admits. The youth-vote director of the Obama campaign (Hans Riemer) acknowledged that the Obama campaign believed that unless they could ‘build a new coalition of voters’, they were destined to lose and hence took the mobilization goal extremely seriously.
What’s interesting is that Barack’s campaign is both off-scale on ‘high tech’ (use of MySpace, online contributions, supporters texting their cellphone numbers, etc.) and ‘high touch’ (as evidenced by Barack excelling in caucus states that require a lot of on-the-ground organizers). It’s an image of a Blackberry or iPhone toting community organizer. They have worked hard to create the structures that liberate the on-the-ground campaign activists, and married online campaigning with social networking.
Specifically on point, there’s a very interesting article on Barack’s campaign in Rolling Stone magazine called The Machinery of Hope (by Tim Dickinson, 3/20/08). The article is summarized in by my colleague David Lazer in the Social Networks and Complexity Blog. It discusses actually these themes; the blending of technology with a community organizing type of approach, working initially to build a large e-mail list of supporters that then could be tapped down the road for engagement and funding, but coupled, for example, with a 3-day period in which Obama’s campaign trained 4000 precinct captains across 20 communities.
The article is well worth reading; it highlights how the Obama campaign focused on creating local activists, but also discusses the risk of a more decentralized campaign — the same risks that Howard Dean faced — when local campaign volunteers might not be singing to the same sheet of music. [The article notes that in one Texas precinct, the right wing had a field day after a Fox news story showed a Houston Obama volunteer office decorated with a Che Guevara flag.] But the risks appear to largely have been worth it: Obama, through the use of volunteers trained in Camp Obamas (that mixed the best of community organizing and social networking), was able to have a strong presence in a host of states months before the Clinton campaign was. This has translated into an unanswered series of wins in virtually all of the caucus states that reward the grassroots organization of Obama over the more heavy media-message and drop-in appearances campaign of Clinton.
Moreover, it is clear that Barack, in the course of running, is building a large-scale movement of citizens yearning to be more engaged, to a degree that hasn’t happened since the early ’60s. To some extent, it’s the perfect formula for a new presidency. President Bush’s tax cuts and the devastatingly ineffective and costly Iraq War have left American government in financial shambles with enormous and mounting deficits and debts. Thus, Obama having an unprecedented volunteer force millions strong to solve some of the social ills he will want to tackle is not just convenient, but imperative. Obama can come to power with the message that the problems are too large for government to solve on their own; to solve these and make headway, all these Americans will need to be volunteer partners in this effort. Let’s hope he succeeds, for the future of civic engagement and the future of America.