Obama Campaign Aims To Turn Online Backers Into an Offline Force

The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is launching a drive today in which online supporters are to meet in person, then build a connection that will carry over to next year's caucuses and primaries.
The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is launching a drive today in which online supporters are to meet in person, then build a connection that will carry over to next year's caucuses and primaries. (By Phil Coale -- Associated Press)
By Chris Cillizza
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

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.


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