Washington Post: Obama Campaign Aims To Turn Online Backers Into an Offline Force
By Chris Cillizza
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will rally thousands of voters in cities and towns across the country today, part of an effort to ensure that the surge of interest in his campaign will translate into an army of supporters when Democrats begin casting votes 10 months from now.
Obama's "community kickoff" events are billed as first-of-a-kind gatherings aimed at encouraging members of the more than 6,000 groups that were created on his presidential Web site to meet face to face. The candidate is to christen the effort to take his online support offline at a public library in tiny Onawa, Iowa, an appearance that will be streamed live on his Web site.
The meetings are the most high-profile example to date of the Obama campaign's efforts to avoid the fate suffered in 2004 by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who could not turn online excitement into votes and saw his campaign fizzle dramatically in Iowa.
Like Dean, Obama has gained prominence with rhetoric that has struck a chord with many voters and with his call for a shake-up of the status quo in Washington. Obama's campaign also faces the perils of any insurgent effort: In the second act, can it convince Democrats that nominating him will not compromise the party's chances of winning the White House?
The solution to moving from an online insurgency to an established and serious presidential bid, according to Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, is events such as the one set for today, in which online activists meet in person and begin to build an offline connection.
"The movement for change begins with you," Obama wrote in an e-mail touting the community kickoff event. "It's one thing to understand that in theory. It's another to sit in a room full of motivated people, make a plan and then witness the effects of hard work."
Obama is hardly the only candidate seeking the presidential nomination in 2008 who faces the challenge of converting excitement and interest into activism and votes. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 65 percent of voters said they are following the presidential race closely; in a Post survey done in April 2003, 37 percent said they were closely monitoring the 2004 campaign.
That intensity has translated into huge crowds packing town halls across Iowa and New Hampshire, thousands signing up as "friends" of the candidates on social networking sites, and tens of millions of dollars already being donated in the first three months of the year. As of last night, Obama's Web site reported he had received more than 100,000 contributions in the first three months of 2007.
The challenge, as one former member of Dean's staff put it, is that "you can generate a lot of press without that translating into actual support."
Ned Lamont's Democratic primary campaign in Connecticut against Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman last year provided a stark reminder of the limits of enthusiasm -- particularly online -- in bringing a campaign across the finish line. After defeating Lieberman in the August primary, thanks in large part to the strong backing of the liberal "Net roots" movement, Lamont could not translate that support into a general election victory, and Lieberman won as an independent in the three-way race.
For Obama, the challenge of turning initial interest into a year-long commitment and, eventually, votes is particularly acute. Unlike his main opponents for the 2008 Democratic nomination -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- Obama is a newcomer to national politics.
Many of Obama's new supporters "are much like the people we initially started exciting," said Joe Trippi, who was Dean's campaign manager. But it is there that Obama's campaign hopes the comparisons to Dean will end.
Obama's team of experienced field operatives is trying to ensure that relationships with volunteers interested in the campaign are being built both online and offline. The goal is twofold: to gauge how active and committed a supporter is to Obama's candidacy, but also to build a relationship that transcends the person's simply receiving e-mails or joining an online group.
In the first weekend of his campaign for president, Obama signed up more volunteers in Iowa than Al Gore, then the vice president, did in the first six months of his campaign for the 2000 nomination. At a late February rally in Austin, Obama's campaign collected 22,000 e-mail addresses.
"What Obama is creating is this viral network of support," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. "He has a national campaign already."
Some skeptics think Obama lacks the campaign infrastructure to take advantage of the excitement he is creating. "From a distance, it looks like they have an intake-valve problem," said one unaffiliated strategist who was granted anonymity to speak frankly about Obama. "There's more demand than they are able to handle."
Obama's aides are taking pains to show that is not the case. In advance of a rally last weekend in Oakland, Calif., the campaign e-mailed its list requesting volunteers to do advance work and staff the event. Five hundred people gathered at the preliminary meeting. "We now know that they are not only for us but they are active volunteers," Plouffe said.
That approach is based at least in part on Obama's experience as a young community organizer on Chicago's South Side. "Change won't come from the top, I would say," Obama wrote in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father." "Change will come from a mobilized grass roots."
He has put together a field staff built around that idea. Field director Temo Figueroa sits astride the national operation, and Steve Hildebrand, who ran Gore's campaign in Iowa in 1999 and 2000, is tasked with organizing in the early states. In New Hampshire, Obama has signed on Rob Hill, who ran the party's coordinated field operations in Montana in 2006 and Oregon in 2004. Obama's Iowa director is Paul Tewes, a longtime party operative who was Hildebrand's deputy in 2000.
It is in Iowa that the success or failure of Obama's online-to-offline strategy will be measured. To win that state's caucuses requires organizing know-how and execution, a trick Dean -- despite tens of thousands of volunteers across the country -- could not pull off.
"One laboratory you can study very carefully is Iowa, and the truth is [Dean's] online energy was elsewhere," Plouffe said.
Trippi said that of the 650,000 people on Dean's e-mail list, just 2,500 were Iowa residents. That meant that many volunteers working on Dean's get-out-the-vote effort at the caucuses were out-of-towners who were considerably younger than the average Iowa voter, he added.
To avoid that situation, Obama's campaign is seeking to emulate the neighbor-to-neighbor contact President Bush benefited from in the 2004 election. An Iowa resident signing up to receive e-mail updates on Obama's Web site will get a call within days from one of Tewes's team aimed at beginning a personal relationship that, the campaign hopes, will result in that supporter's presence at the caucuses in January. These supporters are invited to organize community meetings, attend caucus training sessions and come to events with the candidate as well as his surrogates.
But no matter how well organized Obama's campaign is in Iowa, his drawing power has a downside. David Yepsen, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, recently wrote: "Barack Obama is getting good crowds in Iowa. Perhaps too good for his own good." Yepsen argued that many attendees at a recent Dubuque event were from out of town, drawn by Obama's star power but ultimately unable to caucus for him.
Obama's campaign is aware of that risk. The lesson learned from Dean's failed effort, according to Plouffe, is to focus as much as possible on "Iowans talking to Iowans."