The Tampa Bay area is known for having festivals. As Jon Stewart once remarked on a visit, "A two week festival just to celebrate the strawberry?? You people sure do find any excuse for a party." It was no surprise to see so many Independence Day festivals throughout the Bay (over a dozen in Pinellas County alone) to commemorate July 4th that it's difficult for residents to know where to start. An increasingly popular place to look, however, is the Find Events section of www.barackobama.com, which features a substantial list of local activities -- each to be dutifully manned by voter registration volunteers that are "Fired up and ready to go!"
The Obama website has been largely credited with fueling the campaign's fundraising machine. The call banking feature (unsuccessfully mimicked late in the Hillary Clinton campaign) enabled hundreds of thousands of "Get Out the Vote" phone calls on the days leading up to each primary contest. Now the same Web 2.Obama technology is being utilized as volunteer coordination software -- seamlessly mobilizing hundreds of volunteers in each metro area to blanket all community events.
At the Clearwater celebration, a table covered with a bright red tablecloth and a sign encouraging voter registration marked each of the two entrances. At least half a dozen volunteers for each entrance cheerfully relieved each other throughout the day so that no less than two smiling individuals were holding clipboards stocked with voter registration forms at the stations.
Inside the festival gates a large Obama booth occupied the center of the vendor area, adorned with Obama banners (that were "sent directly from the headquarters in Chicago" one volunteer proudly explained) and a life-sized Obama cutout posed for pictures with families passing by. Another six volunteers manned the booth armed with Obama stickers, fliers of information about Obama's positions and, of course, additional voter registration forms.
The Independence Day Festival for the City of Clearwater was attended by more than one Republican city official, including staff for the Republican mayor. There was a flurry of discussion by various families about the recent engagement of their Governor Charlie Christ, who is short-listed as John McCain's possible running mate. Looking across at the picnic blankets and lawn chairs scattered on the grass and around the waters of the bay, the population of Clearwater that attended the festivities are what some pundits would consider McCain's dream demographic -- mostly seniors and "hard working middle class" white families.
The most notable thing missing was a single volunteer, booth or shred of paraphernalia from the McCain campaign. In fact, no Obama volunteer interviewed could recall seeing a Republican presence at any of the dozens events they attended since the voter registration campaign began more than two weeks ago.
Obama volunteers seemed welcomed by the Republican residents with open arms. The booth maintained steady flows of crowds stopping by to register, to ask a few questions or to simply express their support. On a day that could have consisted of a relaxing barbeque or some time on the local beach with their families, the volunteers laughed at the idea of spending their July 4th holiday doing something else.
"Today is about honoring our country and those who served our country," explained one volunteer. "We're proud to be serving our country now. This time next year will be the real time to celebrate. Now it's about getting Obama's message out there and letting people get to know who he is."
The effectiveness of these volunteers will be difficult to measure before both election results and voter registration tallies are final. But if Obama's major-league presence on the web continues to carve a home for his campaign within living breathing Republican communities such as Clearwater, the impact of his online volunteer organization will be noteworthy for many elections to come.