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The Obama Franchise: Harnessing Activists' Energy

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The Obama Franchise: Harnessing Activists' Energy

The Obama Franchise: Harnessing Activists' Energy

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Barack Obama and McDonald's might not seem to have anything in common. But the Obama campaign and the fast-food company both depend on a network of independent operators to carry out their mission. This week, we're examining the presidential campaigns as if they were businesses, which in a way they are. It's just that their bottom line is votes, not profit.

NPR's Scott Horsley has our first report on the Obama organization.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Barack Obama was still months away from formally launching his presidential campaign when he came to the Texas Book Festival in 2006. That's where he met a community activist named David Kobierowski. Kobierowski told the senator he was planning to start a book club to discuss "The Audacity of Hope."

Mr. DAVID KOBIEROWSKI (Founder, Texans for Obama): He immediately raised his hand in the air and said, David, that is fantastic. This is the kind of grassroots spirit I want to have all over the country.

HORSLEY: Kobierowski had just become, in effect, a Barack Obama franchisee. He wasn't a paid staffer. And he was acting independently, albeit with Obama's blessing.

Franchising expert Marko Grunhagen says harnessing that kind of energy is one way for a start-up enterprise to quickly establish a national presence -whether they're selling hamburgers or Obama's health care policy.

Dr. MARKO GRUNHAGEN (Marketing, Eastern Illinois University): The problem that you typically have, you know, if you want to start a franchise chain is that initially nobody knows your brand. And so what you need early on is you need a few people that are willing to take on the risk to invest their money, open their own stores and duplicate that initial idea multiple times over.

HORSLEY: Kobierowski's book club served as a kind of storefront for Obama in Austin, Texas. The club held its first meeting in December 2006, and about 30 people showed up. A month later, there were more than twice that many. And the following month, when Obama came to Austin after formally announcing his campaign, Kobierowski helped organize a rally for him that drew more than 15,000 people.

Mr. KOBIEROWSKI: I think he saw that very early on that we were building this tremendous momentum.

HORSLEY: Over the next year, the volunteer book club, now known as Texans for Obama, kept working, even as Obama's paid staffers were preoccupied in Iowa. Campaign headquarters in Chicago provided support, including names and phone numbers of potential volunteers. But some of the best ideas bubbled up from below, and groups like Kobierowski's were encouraged to provide input on the senator's policies.

Mr. KOBIEROWSKI: You felt like you were part of something immediately, and that you were helping to make a difference. It was more than just this pep rally. It was an actual movement.

HORSLEY: Kobierowski and other franchisees have been helping to spread that movement all around the country. That's one reason a freshman senator like Obama has been able to surpass more established politicians in both delegates and fundraising. So far, Obama's raised more than $200 million, more than 40 percent of it from small donors. When companies get to be that successful, they'll often start reining in their franchisees.

Franchise expert Grunhagen, who is a professor at Eastern Illinois University, says centralized control becomes more important.

Dr. GRUNHAGEN: The one dirty bathroom that gets noticed in the newspaper, you know, hurts all franchisees around the country.

HORSLEY: Obama's campaign got some negative press, for example, when volunteers in Houston opened an unauthorized campaign office, and local TV cameras spotted a Cuban flag on the wall. But that's been the exception.

Graphic design expert Michael Bierut of the Pentagram firm marveled in a Newsweek interview at just how consistent the campaign signs are at one Obama rally after another. He says those uniform blue signs with their signature O logo serve as a reassuring symbol of dependability, just like the familiar interstate signs for franchise hotels and fast-food chains.

Mr. MICHAEL BIERUT (Graphic Designer, Pentagram): I've jokingly said to my wife, someone that can coordinate all those fonts and make them all match perfectly, you know, I trust them to kind of come up with universal health care, and get us out of Iraq, and turn around the economy and do whatever else it takes.

HORSLEY: Kobierowski still has one of the homemade flyers for that first Obama book club meeting 16 months ago. It looks a little amateurish next to today's mass-produced campaign signs. But just like an early McDonald's franchise, it helped get the ball rolling, so millions and millions could be served.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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