Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, seen urging students to vote during an event in Denver in August, says he's thrilled at the numbers of people Obama has brought into the party.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, seen urging students to vote during an event in Denver in August, says he's thrilled at the numbers of people Obama has brought into the party. To his left is Pat Walk, chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party.
When President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, he'll have expanded majorities of Democrats in both houses of Congress — and the support of a big grass-roots movement. Millions of people helped him beat Sen. John McCain, and Obama must be as innovative in harnessing their power postelection as he was during the campaign.
When Obama delivered his election victory speech in Chicago, he thanked his wife, his campaign manager and his strategist. Then he thanked his volunteers, the army of political foot soldiers who donated money and knocked on doors.
Howard Dean, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says he's thrilled at the vast number of people Obama has brought into the party.
"He's changed all the rules — not just with the use of the Internet and the fundraising — but he's changed the rules in terms of how you ask people for their vote, and who you ask for your vote," Dean says.
Obama took the foundation that Dean himself dug in 2004 — the small-dollar Internet fundraising and the DNC's 50-state strategy — and erected a powerful political infrastructure. The numbers are eye-popping: 10 million names on an e-mail list, 3.1 million donors. But the most important number of all may be the tens of thousands of what the campaign called "supervolunteers," people who worked sometimes 40 to 50 hours a week for Obama.
"We've run sort of a giant experiment here in volunteer management, and we want to take a look at the lessons learned from that," says Jon Carson, national field director for the campaign. He's one of the people trying to figure out what to do with the grass-roots movement Obama created.
"As President-elect Obama takes office and a legislative agenda is put together," Carson says, "I think in the same way these incredible volunteers that we had carried his message throughout the campaign, talking to their neighbors about why he was the right candidate to bring the change that we needed — I can see them, in a similar way, explaining a health care proposal, explaining whatever issue it is."
And as soon as they're done explaining Obama's plans to their neighbors, the president-elect can skirt the so-called media filter and urge them through text messages, e-mails and video links to inundate their Congress members with expressions of support for his agenda.
Tony Loyd of Racine, Wis., is part of Obama's grass-roots movement. He signed up and became an Obama team leader, helping to get out the vote. Loyd recently launched a Web site called yeswecanracine. By the next morning, it had 12 members.
"There is an entire army out here who is anxious to continue to push in the same direction, and whatever he asks us to do, we will do," Loyd says. "If he needs me to call my member of Congress, I'm perfectly willing to do that. And the beauty of the Web-enabled infrastructure that he built is the fact that it gives us all a way to be part of the conversation — both uploading our ideas and downloading from the Obama administration."
Loyd has already been to the Obama transition Web site. In keeping with the campaign's interactive approach, it asks visitors to share their memories of Election Day and their ideas for Obama's agenda. It's a way for the new administration to keep supporters engaged until it knows what else it wants them to do.
So if Howard Dean with his millions of small donors was Orville Wright, and Obama with his wired grass-roots army was Neil Armstrong, what will be next?
Sara Taylor, the former political director of the Bush White House, has one idea.
"We're at a place in the country where almost everybody has a cell phone, but not many people have a smartphone, meaning a video-enabled phone. But that will change over the next three to four or five years," Taylor says.
She envisions a campaign in which "they'll be able to serve you advertising via a text message that links right to video with your candidate speaking in a beautiful video" about certain issues.
That's a lot cheaper than buying television ad time. And it's just technology, available to any political party so long as it can harness it to serve a powerful message — and a messenger, just like Obama did.