Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign manager and Internet impresario, describes Super Tuesday II–the March 4 primaries in Texas, Ohio, Vermont, and Rhode Island–as the moment Barack Obama used social technology to decisive effect. The day’s largest hoard of delegates would be contested in Texas, where a strong showing would require exceptional discipline and voter-education efforts. In Texas, Democrats vote first at the polls and then, if they choose, again at caucuses after the polls close. The caucuses award one-third of the Democratic delegates.
Hillary Clinton’s camp had about 20,000 volunteers at work in Texas. But in an e-mail, Trippi learned that 104,000 Texans had joined Obama’s social-networking site, www.my.barackobama.com, known as MyBO. MyBO and the main Obama site had already logged their share of achievements, particularly in helping rake in cash. The month before, the freshman senator from Illinois had set a record in American politics by garnering $55 million in donations in a single month. In Texas, MyBO also gave the Obama team the instant capacity to wage fully networked campaign warfare. After seeing the volunteer numbers, Trippi says, “I remember saying, ‘Game, match–it’s over.’”
The Obama campaign could get marching orders to the Texans registered with MyBO with minimal effort. The MyBO databases could slice and dice lists of volunteers by geographic microregion and pair people with appropriate tasks, including prepping nearby voters on caucus procedure. “You could go online and download the names, addresses, and phone numbers of 100 people in your neighborhood to get out and vote–or the 40 people on your block who were undecided,” Trippi says. “ ‘Here is the leaflet: print it out and get it to them.’ It was you, at your computer, in your house, printing and downloading. They did it all very well.” Clinton won the Texas primary vote 51 to 47 percent. But Obama’s people, following their MyBO playbook, so overwhelmed the chaotic, crowded caucuses that he scored an overall victory in the Texas delegate count, 99 to 94. His showing nearly canceled out Clinton’s win that day in Ohio. Clinton lost her last major opportunity to stop the Obama juggernaut. “In 1992, Carville said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” Trippi says, recalling the exhortation of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville. “This year, it was the network, stupid!”
Throughout the political season, the Obama campaign has dominated new media, capitalizing on a confluence of trends. Americans are more able to access media-rich content online; 55 percent have broadband Internet connections at home, double the figure for spring 2004. Social-networking technologies have matured, and more Americans are comfortable with them. Although the 2004 Dean campaign broke ground with its online meeting technologies and blogging, “people didn’t quite have the facility,” says Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor who has given the Obama campaign Internet policy advice (Lessig wrote The People Own Ideas! in our May/June 2005 issue). “The world has now caught up with the technology.” The Obama campaign, he adds, recognized this early: “The key networking advance in the Obama field operation was really deploying community-building tools in a smart way from the very beginning.”
Of course, many of the 2008 candidates had websites, click-to-donate tools, and social-networking features–even John McCain, who does not personally use e-mail. But the Obama team put such technologies at the center of its campaign–among other things, recruiting 24-year-old Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook, to help develop them. And it managed those tools well. Supporters had considerable discretion to use MyBO to organize on their own; the campaign did not micromanage but struck a balance between top-down control and anarchy. In short, Obama, the former Chicago community organizer, created the ultimate online political machine.
The Obama campaign did not provide access or interviews for this story; it only confirmed some details of our reporting and offered written comments. This story is based on interviews with third parties involved in developing Obama’s social-networking strategy or who were familiar with it, and on public records.