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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)

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."

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