Obama's Wide Web
From YouTube to Text Messaging, Candidate's Team Connects to Voters

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Amid the cramped, crowded cubicles inside Sen. Barack Obama's campaign headquarters here, sandals are as ubiquitous as iPods. Two young guys in shorts and T-shirts throw a football around. An electoral college map (California 55, Texas 34, etc.) is taped to the wall in the men's bathroom. A BlackBerrying staffer sneezes and blurts out, "Whew! I think I'm allergic to hope!"

This is Triple O -- Obama's online operation.

Five years ago, Howard Dean's online-fueled campaign cemented the Internet's role as a political force. Exactly how big a force no one was quite sure. But this year's primary season, spanning six months, proved that online buzz and activity can translate to offline, on-the-ground results. Indeed, the Web has been crucial to how Obama raises money, communicates his message and, most important, recruits, energizes and turns out his supporters.

With less than three months to go before the election, Triple O is the envy of strategists in both parties, redefining the role that an online team can play within a campaign.

"Theirs is an operation that everyone will be studying for campaigns to come," says Peter Daou, who was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's Internet director.

Adds Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an online hub of how politics and technology intersect: "Obama's success online is as much about how our society has changed, how our media ecology has changed, just in the past four years."

Rasiej describes how his 81-year-old father, an Obama supporter, has taken to e-mailing videos of the senator's speeches and policy plans to 50 of his friends. "In one afternoon, my dad is reaching friends who in the past would have taken him a whole year to be in contact with. That's not necessarily Obama. That's the Internet," he continues. "But you have to give credit where credit is due: Obama's Internet team is doing a hell of a job taking advantage of all these changes. They've basically leapfrogged not just the Clinton and McCain campaigns but also the mainstream media when it comes to reaching their supporters."

Joe Trippi, who's widely credited with Dean's pioneering use of the Web, says: "I like to say that we at the Dean campaign were the Wright brothers. We put this rickety thing together and got it off the ground. But the folks in Obama's online team are the Apollo project. The question is, are they Apollo 8 or Apollo 11? If they're Apollo 11, they're going to launch a guy and land him in the White House."

The launch began in early 2007, when Joe Rospars, a veteran of the Dean campaign and the Democratic National Committee, was hired as new-media director. In the following weeks, the 27-year-old assembled a group that included one of the co-founders of Facebook, an award-winning CNN producer and a text-messaging enthusiast. BarackObama.com was born.

A year and a half ago, Rospars led a group of 11. It's easily double that now, with staffers taping signs on the back of their furniture that read, "This is not an extra chair! This chair belongs to . . ." Rospars won't divulge the total number of people in his team. "We don't want to give away our entire playbook," he says.

But he and other members of the group were willing to discuss many other details behind Triple O. This is how the pieces of their operation fit together.

'Not Just About Obama'

Forget CNN, Fox News, NBC et al. Obama stars on his own channel, and it's headed by Kate Albright-Hanna, a self-described YouTube addict who runs Obama's video team.

So far, Albright-Hanna's group has shot more than 2,000 hours' worth of footage and uploaded about 1,110 videos on Obama's YouTube channel-- more than four times what's available on Sen. John McCain's channel. For months, Obama's 37-minute race speech following the furor over the remarks of his former pastor has remained the channel's most watched video, seen more than 4.7 million times. But what's striking about Obama's channel is the breadth of its content. Though most of the videos are centered on the candidate -- his speeches and rallies, his TV and online ads, his TV appearances -- many others feature his supporters.

"Early on, we wanted to capture the sense that this campaign is not just about Obama," says Albright-Hanna, 32.

An Emmy winner, she joined CNN's political unit in 1999 and met Rospars while filming a documentary on Dean. When she heard that Rospars was working for Obama, Albright-Hanna called and said she wanted to produce a doc on Obama. The campaign planned to develop its own video content, Rospars said. Intrigued, Albright-Hanna sent him a proposal on video strategy. Weeks later, she left CNN and moved with her husband and 3-year-old son to Chicago.

At least nine staffers have contributed to the video team -- an astounding figure compared with many mainstream news organizations and past campaigns. (McCain's aides declined to say how many videographers the campaign has. It has four staffers devoted to Internet activities, and has also hired an outside vendor.) Some travel with Obama and his press pack. Others work in the field. Some of the videos last less than five minutes; others go on for as long as 25. They're posted on BarackTV, the video portal on BarackObama.com, and on YouTube.

A 13-minute video featuring students at the Bronx High School for Performance and Stagecraft, for example, shows black and Hispanic teenagers talking about their school's racial atmosphere and their reaction to Obama's race speech in Philadelphia. "I like . . . how [Obama] always says blacks, whites, Spanish, Asian," Ryston Buchanan, a junior, says in the video. "He says all the races, so you can see that he's not focused on one group of people." Albright-Hanna shot that video herself, and it's been viewed more than 400,000 times.

"I guess I've kind of been rebelling from my CNN days, where video had to be a certain length, a certain format with a certain sensibility. Where I came from, there's a lot of concern about ratings and about what they think people, everyday people, are interested in watching," Albright-Hanna says. "Here, we don't worry about how many views our videos get. That's not the priority. One of our goals is to get people talking about what's going on in their lives and why they're supporting Barack -- and hopefully not only will they watch the videos but also comment on them and forward them to relatives and friends and co-workers."

Last year, when reporters and pundits saw Clinton as the front-runner for the nomination, Albright-Hanna's team tried to capture how Obama's excited supporters were organizing. In December, weeks before the Iowa caucuses, a two-minute video was posted telling the story of Helen Kwan, an Obama precinct captain in Bettendorf, and Lilah Bell, a 99-year-old Obama volunteer who planned to caucus for the first time. "This is primarily Republican," says Kwan, a 46-year-old mother of five. "But I have about eight strong volunteers, probably closer to 10 strong volunteers." Obama never appears in the video, which has been viewed more than 11,000 times -- just his campaign logo.

The pattern has continued during the general election campaign, when most news reports zero in on the day's tit-for-tat. Never mind the polls, these videos seem to say, this is what's happening in various homes and communities.

The videos are also used to bypass the news media. In June, Obama announced his decision to opt out of public financing in an almost three-minute video that's been viewed more than 345,000 times. Recently, a policy adviser in the campaign was featured in a three-minute "fact checking" video-- now viewed about 117,000 times -- rebutting McCain's attacks on Obama.

Together, the videos on Obama's YouTube channel have been viewed nearly 52 million times, according to TubeMogul.com, which tracks online videos. A viewer watching a video on the channel has an option to click on a "Contribute" button and, using a credit card, donate an amount from $15 to $1,000 using Google Checkout. McCain's channel, whose videos have been viewed 9.5 million times, doesn't offer this option.

Some bloggers say these videos are self-serving, propagandist, almost cultlike. Others, however, say the videos give supporters a chance to see themselves as part of the campaign. Whatever the judgment, Albright-Hanna says, "we don't have control over what people think of the videos -- we just put them out there."

Texting, Texting: C U @ the Rally

Eyes rolled when Scott Goodstein rolled out the campaign's text-messaging program in June 2007.

In part, that was because the program included custom-made Obama wallpaper and ring tones -- both staples in the mobile commercial market but untested in the political realm. Clinton and John Edwards had texting programs, too, but they didn't take them this far. Even Obama staffers were skeptical. Unlike YouTube, texting is not free; depending on their cellphone plans, supporters have to pay to receive and send messages. All of the Republican candidates except Mitt Romney saw it as a gimmick. McCain's campaign doesn't text.

But Goodstein, who put his D.C.-based PR business on hold to join the Obama campaign early last year, is a texting evangelist. He's the kind of guy who texts on two phones -- a BlackBerry for work and a Motorola Razr for his personal use.

"To me, texting is the most personal form of communication," says Goodstein, 34. "Your phone is with you almost all the time. You're texting with your girlfriend. You're texting with your friends. Now you're texting with Barack."

Texting is also playing a crucial role in the campaign's obsession with growing its database. Throughout last year, Goodstein sent at least a dozen texts to collect names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Most important, the message came with "an ask," meaning users were asked to do something upon receiving it.

"Watch Barack debate tonight live on CNN! 7pm EDT. REPLY back with your name and your thoughts during & after the debate," read a text sent on July 23, 2007.

Two months later, on Sept. 11, a text read: "Please REPLY to this message with your five-digit zip code to receive local Obama campaign news and periodic updates."

Then as the primaries and caucuses neared, what Goodstein calls "a big experiment" started paying off. One Sunday afternoon in early December, minutes before Oprah Winfrey and Obama addressed about 29,000 people at a rally in Columbia, S.C., Jeremy Bird, Obama's state field director, asked the crowd to take out their cellphones and text "SC" to 62262, Obama's short code. The code spells "Obama" on phones.

In the following weeks, Goodstein sent texts to the numbers he'd collected and asked supporters to make phone calls, volunteer in precincts and vote on Jan. 26 in South Carolina. Obama won that state by 28 points.

"South Carolina was a defining moment in what we were going to do with text messaging -- not just with young voters but with all voters," says Goodstein, who spent three weeks there to oversee the texting strategy.

Texting is a two-way street, and staffers and volunteers respond to texts from supporters who send questions such as "Where's my polling place?" He wouldn't divulge how many supporters receive texts, but the strategy was effective enough to be used in subsequent contests. "Help Barack get out the vote in Pennsylvania! If you can get to PA between now and 4/22, REPLY to this msg: TVL and your NAME (ex. TVL Ann). Please fwd msg," read a text sent before the Keystone State primary.

Note the casual reference to the candidate ("Barack"); the request to forward ("fwd") the text; and the timing -- the text was sent two weeks before polls opened, giving it plenty of time to be passed around. Says Goodstein, "We've just begun to crack how valuable texting is."

Last week, the campaign texted its supporters to say that it will announce its vice presidential pick via text. Days later, Goodstein launched Obama Mobile, a site where users can access the latest Obama news and download videos on their cellphones -- a first for a presidential candidate.

Socnets Instead of Town Diners

If Triple O had a motto, it would be: "Meet the voters where they're at."

Obama was the first candidate to have profiles on AsianAve.com, MiGente.com and BlackPlanet.com, social networking sites (a.k.a. socnets) targeting the Asian, Latino and black communities. His presence on BlackPlanet, which ranks behind MySpace and Facebook in terms of traffic, is so deep that he maintains 50 profiles, one for each state. On ALforObama, his Alabama page on BlackPlanet, for example, supporters can read an updated blog, watch YouTube videos and learn more about his text program.

It's difficult to measure the value of these socnets in persuading voters to choose Obama. What's clear, however, is that online networking -- how supporters communicate with one another within their online communities -- has its advantages. A Facebook group called Students for Barack Obama, started in July 2006 by Bowdoin College student Meredith Segal, was so successful that it became an official part of the campaign. By the time Hans Riemer was brought on as Obama's youth-vote director in the spring of 2007, dozens of similar chapters were already up and running on campuses.

"Some people only go to MySpace. It's where they're on all day. Some only go to LinkedIn. Our goal is to make sure that each supporter online, regardless of where they are, has a connection with Obama," says Goodstein, who also is in charge of regularly updating Obama's profiles on these socnets. "Then, as much as we can, we try to drive everyone to our site."

All roads lead to BarackObama.com. In May, weeks before the end of the Democratic primary season, the site attracted 2.3 million unique visitors, according to the research company Nielsen Online. The latest figures from Hitwise.com, which regularly compares online traffic for BarackObama.com and JohnMcCain.com, says that Obama's site draws 72 percent of the total traffic to the two sites.

There's a design team that develops content for BarackObama.com, as well as staffers who place ads across the Web to drive people to the site. A group known as the "analytics team" tracks which ad at what time drew the most traffic and what kinds of e-mails from the campaign get opened and read most. Usually campaigns hire outside companies to do this work.

The site's epicenter is My.BarackObama.com, a socnet built and overseen by Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of Facebook and one of Triple O's first employees. The 24-year-old left Facebook, where he has stock options potentially worth millions, and moved to Chicago in February 2007. Like Albright-Hanna with video and Goodstein with texting, Hughes was anxious to see how online networking can apply to campaigning.

"As great as Barack is, if the campaign hadn't been constituted in this idea of investing in our everyday supporters and helping them organize among themselves, I wouldn't have been as excited about the job," Hughes says.

More than a million people have signed up on MyBO (pronounced My Boh), where they can blog, plan events, set fundraising goals, join groups and volunteer. So far, about 80,000 offline events have been planned using its tools, Hughes says. While most paid staff were deployed in the early-voting states, for example, volunteers were simultaneously organizing in Colorado, Idaho and Montana. The campaign's job is to communicate with users who host events, "making sure the events are happening as planned, that the hosts have resources, that they count how many people actually show up," Hughes says.

"We were able to build a state-by-state organization during the primaries because of the Internet," says campaign manager David Plouffe. "Now we have to continue building on that -- in addition to making sure we keep getting our message across and asking our supporters to help us debunk any rumors and lies out there."

Though staffers monitor MyBO, supporters critical of Obama's positions are allowed to express their dismay. Last month, angered by Obama's compromise on FISA, a telecom immunity bill, users formed what for a time became the single largest group on the network. President Obama, Please Get FISA Right still lists more than 23,000 members.

There are hundreds of groups within MyBO, and some of the biggest include Women for Obama, Veterans for Obama and Environmentalists for Obama. Nikki Sutton, a recent graduate of Middlebury College, contacts supporters within these groups and encourages them to make phone calls and host house parties. "That way, women are calling other women, people who list the environment as their top concern reach out to people who do, too," says Sutton, 23.

To foster a sense of community on MyBO, Sam Graham-Felsen, the campaign's blogger in chief, posts stories of supporters. The 27-year-old used to write for the Nation, for which he did a story on Obama's popularity among young people online. He joined the campaign shortly after that article ran. "I wanted to be a part of the campaign instead of just writing about it," he says. When the campaign hit its goal of 75,000 donors in March 2007, Graham-Felsen contacted the 75,000th donor -- an IT specialist from Long Beach, Calif. -- and wrote about the donor's $5 contribution, his first ever to a campaign.

That small profile encapsulates the hopes behind the entire online operation.

"You can see the main difference between the Obama and McCain campaigns by going to their Web sites," says Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican media consultant whose clients have included Romney and President Bush. "Go to McCain's. Pretty standard. Looks fine. But go to Obama's. At the very top, there's a quote."

Alongside a photo of Obama, it reads: "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I'm asking you to believe in yours."

"Because of the Internet, Obama has built a movement. He's leading a cause. McCain is running on his résumé. He's leading a campaign," Castellanos continues. "Now what's going to win: a cause or a campaign? We don't know."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company