NPR logo The Obama Machine

The Obama Machine

In 2004, a grand total of 1.2 million people made a donation to George W. Bush's re-election campaign. As of the end of September 2008, 3.1 million people - more than two-and-a-half times that number — had made a donation to Barack Obama's campaign.

In September alone, Obama raised money from 1.7 million people, of which about 630,000 were first-time givers, while the rest were repeat givers. Already he's raised more than $600 million, and if current trends hold, he'll have raised perhaps three-quarters of a billion dollars by election day. That would be $50 million more than George Bush and John Kerry combined, in 2004.

Whether Obama wins or loses, it's time to recognize that his campaign has built a new kind of political machine, one that is collecting money, corralling volunteers and coordinating communications at a scale and depth never before seen in American politics.

As Obama told his mostly youthful Chicago staff back in June, "...Collectively, you, all of you, most of whom are - I'm not even sure of drinking age...You've created the best political organization in America and probably the best political organization that we've seen in the last 30 to40 years. That's a pretty big deal."

Indeed, this is nothing like the party machines of old, where political bosses worked with neighborhood ward leaders to deliver services and patronage jobs in exchange for votes, and ordinary people had little choice but to work within this top-down structure - or risk punishment.

It's also different from mass membership organizations like the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club, which have lots of local chapters and sizable national budgets and staffs.

The Obama machine is a new kind of hybrid of top-down leadership and bottom-up energy. While many of its activities are initiated from above, it is also benefiting from a huge outpouring of voter-to-voter self-organizing.

For more than a year and a half, the Obama campaign invested heavily in two things: building up a huge online community, both on its website and on social networks like Facebook and MySpace and building a network of thousands of trained organizers on the ground.

The big fundraising numbers and giant crowds at rallies that we started seeing last year, along with things like the "Million Strong for Obama" on Facebook, were just the tip of the iceberg. Now we can see the whole thing. Online, the center of Obama's political machine is his website, which is currently getting about 2.5 million unique visitors a week, according to This is double the number of people visiting John McCain's website.

And at the heart of the Obama site is a social networking platform called , or myBO for short, which was launched when the campaign started in February 2007. Using myBO, Obama supporters can create their own personal page on the site, launch their own mini-fundraising efforts, organize house parties, and so on. As of mid-October, myBO had 1.5 million registered users. It had used its tools to organize more than 150,000 volunteer events.

The McCain campaign built a similar social networking platform called McCainSpace, but it was plagued by glitches and only started getting off the ground this summer. McCain officials have not released any data about its users, but here's one clue: if you do a random search for events by zipcode on both campaign sites, Obama's consistently shows about ten times as many upcoming events as McCain's.

All of this is happening in part because of the political moment, and how well Obama personally articulates the concerns and passions of millions of Americans. But we wouldn't see the depth and breadth of activity now occurring were it not for the Internet, and for how the Obama campaign has embraced its do-it-yourself ethos.

The last time a presidential candidate saw this kind of outpouring of grass-roots involvement, in my opinion, was when Ross Perot ran for president as an independent in 1992. Afterwards, more than two million people paid dues to join his reform group, United We Stand America, making it a potentially formidable force. Of course, Perot's movement fell apart, in large degree because Perot was too controlling a leader and his followers didn't have the tools to keep their organization going by connecting to each other directly.

The potential of the Obama machine, and its grassroots activists, is far greater. At the end of the day, all this grassroots networked organizing may not be the deciding factor in the election. McCain certainly has enough money to compete and gets massive amounts of free media attention, too. So it could be that message and messenger still matter more than organization, though if the election is close, Obama's organizational strength could be the difference. But whether or not Obama wins, he's built something that hasn't ever been seen on the American political landscape, and if he wins it will be a huge new element in the political battles to come.