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Jane Hamsher Headshot

Forget What Clinton Did Wrong. What Did Obama Do Right?

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There have been numerous postmortems about "what Clinton did wrong," but I don't think that can really be analyzed outside of "what Obama did right."

Much of it was laid out in a fascinating article in the Atlantic by Joshua Green, where he recounts Obama's early courting of Silicon Valley techies and the social networking architecture they subsequently helped to build. It turned his campaign into a virtual machine for organizing volunteers and generating money:

When My.BarackObama.com launched, at the start of the campaign, its lineage was clear. The site is a social-networking hub centered on the candidate and designed to give users a practically unlimited array of ways to participate in the campaign. You can register to vote or start your own affinity group, with a listserv for your friends. You can download an Obama news widget to stay current, or another one (which Spinner found) that scrolls Obama's biography, with pictures, in an endless loop. You can click a "Make Calls" button, receive a list of phone numbers, and spread the good news to voters across the country, right there in your home. You can get text-message updates on your mobile phone and choose from among 12 Obama-themed ring tones, so that each time Mom calls you will hear Barack Obama cry "Yes we can!" and be reminded that Mom should register to vote, too.

"We've tried to bring two principles to this campaign," Rospars told me. "One is lowering the barriers to entry and making it as easy as possible for folks who come to our Web site. The other is raising the expectation of what it means to be a supporter. It's not enough to have a bumper sticker. We want you to give five dollars, make some calls, host an event. If you look at the messages we send to people over time, there's a presumption that they will organize."

The true killer app on My.BarackObama.com is the suite of fund-raising tools. You can, of course, click on a button and make a donation, or you can sign up for the subscription model, as thousands already have, and donate a little every month. You can set up your own page, establish your target number, pound your friends into submission with e-mails to pony up, and watch your personal fund-raising "thermometer" rise. "The idea," Rospars says, "is to give them the tools and have them go out and do all this on their own." The organizing principle behind Obama's Web site, in other words, is the approach Mark Gorenberg used with such success--only scaled to such a degree that it has created an army of more than a million donors and raisers. The Clinton campaign belatedly sought to mimic Obama's Internet success, and has raised what in any other context would be considered significant money online--but nothing like Obama's totals, in dollars or donors. John McCain's online fund-raising has been abysmal.

I remember being at an Obama event in Iowa, and the row of volunteers at each door was four people deep. You weren't getting in there without giving some bit of personal contact information. Got a cell phone? Scott Goodstein ran their text messaging campaign. Enter your zip code and you'll be activated when volunteers are needed in a particular state. The way the campaign worked volunteers into a system orchestrated by professional organizers was staggering both in its scope and its efficiency. They built an email list that is estimated to be somewhere between 4 and 8 million, some say as high as 10. Then they worked it. And worked it. Every email solicitation is now a fundraising motherlode.

Clinton, by comparison, ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign. She may have raised more money than any other Democratic presidential candidate who came before, she may have had a formidable machine, but she was blown away by an organization that executed a nearly flawless mastery of new social networking technology. State after state, her team thought she didn't need to compete. Under an old model, maybe not. But Obama's organization brought manpower and resources to every state that the Clinton team just did not see coming.

The effect this has all had on modern politics has yet to be measured. But think about it: in February, the month that Obama raised $55 million, he did not host one single fundraiser. Clinton, on the other hand, was tied to a system where her time was spent courting big-dollar donors. Which has the effect (potentially) of freeing a candidate from saying one thing to the public, with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to the folks writing the checks. Now the public are the folks writing the checks.

I was on Bloggingheads today with Matt Yglesias, who noted that this may be responsible for some of the messianic messaging of the Obama campaign. When he speaks to his supporters, he's actually speaking to his funders, trying to get them invested and enrolled in the network of his campaign. It can all sound a bit cult-like to those outside of it, but it's an integral part of the way his organization is set up to run.

Micah Sifrey writes today about what this all means for the future of politics. If Obama carries this sort of organizational ability and infrastructure into the Oval Office, what kind of transformative effect will it have on the way he governs?

He links to Dave Winer, who notes:

The Internet destabilizes every hierarchy it contacts. It erases every barrier to entry.

The Clinton campaign might very well have worked in 2000. But in 2008, it was Tower Records. Obama was Napster. Meanwhile, they're rubbing sticks together at the McCain campaign:

John McCain stumping and raising cash today in Richmond joked about his method for vetting prospective veep candidates. Per pool press ...

"We're going through a process where you get a whole bunch of names, and ya ... Well, basically, it's a Google," McCain said. "You just, you know, what you can find out now on the Internet. It's remarkable, you know."

Sounds like Grandpa can't program a VCR. The upcoming contest, waged from opposite sides of the technological divide, will be interesting to say the least.

Jane Hamsher blogs at firedoglake.com