May 5, 2008
Barack Obama's GoldmineBy Ed Lasky
An odd dynamic is at work as the primaries wind down, one that has made victory for Barack Obama all but certain, despite plummeting poll numbers. Clinton may be rising in the polls, racking up primary victories and, judging by the polls, would be a stronger challenger than Obama against John McCain. Nevertheless, Senator Obama is still gaining support among superdelegates, who likely will ultimately choose the nominee.
While this has been explained as a desire among superdelegates to end the divisive process and prevent discord among the party's loyal African-American delegates, another overlooked factor is playing a role.
The Obama campaign has compiled a giant database of supporters that can be tapped by superdelegates who need help -- and of course money -- in their own future campaigns. The Senator has developed the campaign equivalent of a gold mine that has many years of production ahead.
The Republican Party's "ace in the hole" in the last few elections has been its legendary voter vault -- a database of information on likely GOP supporters that could be utilized for fundraising purposes and to support get-out-the-vote efforts. The data could be massaged to power recruitment campaigns, to track issues of concerns as these issues change during campaigns, and to change message as needed during the election season. The "voter vault" was compiled at the cost of many millions of dollars (by blending a variety of data together) and has proven its potency.
Not to be outdone, the Democrats responded in years past by developing their own database tool: Catalist, developed by Clinton supporter Harold Ickes, as a tool to help progressive candidates and causes. .
However, and understandably, the Obama campaign has chosen to forge its own path, rather than rely on a database developed by Ickes. The campaign has just the right man to do so: Chris Hughes, a 24-year old co-founder of the phenomenally successful Facebook website, who should rightly join David Plouffe and David Axelrod in a triumvirate that has been key to the Obama campaign.
His battle-tested campaign managers have performed a near miracle: taking a candidate with a minimal experience base, a voting record that shows him to be far to the left of most Americans (including many Democrats), carrying on his back a problematic group of friends and associates, and made him into an American Idol.
The internet era of politics
The Obama campaign has risen on a wave of support from young people. A substantial share of his base is composed of those under the age of twenty-five. In Ohio, 70 percent of those under the age of 25 voted for him; in Pennsylvania, he garnered 65 percent of this vote. This children's crusade has also been instrumental in helping him in other caucus and primary states. This is the Generation Next cohort: millions of people who are very adept at making the internet part of their lives.
The campaign has responded in exemplary fashion: tapping emerging technologies and internet sites such as the aforementioned Facebook, MySpace, and most significantly, the campaign's own website: Mybarackobama.com -- an interactive website formed under the guidance of Hughes. Their efforts to utilize the internet to power the campaign dwarf those of the campaigns of both Clinton and McCain.*
With Obama's campaign we have fully entered the internet era of electoral politics.
The Mybarackobama site is the first social network site devoted to a political campaign. Mybarackobama.com capitalizes on "viral growth": by inviting friends to join you in supporting Barack Obama. Powered by this simple but effective mechanism, the Obama campaign's list of contacts, supporters and donors has grown at an exponential rate with zero incremental costs of "acquiring" them. Why buy mailing lists?
This is a powerful competitive advantage. Through it, supporters become part of the campaign: learning of meet-ups where they join with like-minded Obama supporters; they can also tap phone bank lists, so as to contact other potential supporters and new recruits. The website also encourages them to express their concerns over a range of issues -- helping the campaign develop its own talking points on the campaign trail. Supporters have entered megabits of personal information that otherwise would have to be derived from expensive and less reliable sources (credit card records, magazine subscriptions, and the like); because it is information that is volunteered, its veracity is considered greater.
Of course, the campaign has also risen on the vast amount of money collected from a fundraising effort that has eclipsed that of all previous campaigns. Barack Obama has been a prodigious fundraiser; the campaign's prowess is remarkable. Obama has even been able to convince former supporters of Bill Clinton to support his own election, damaging the Clinton's campaign that has been chronically short of funds.
Key advantages of the database
His website has played a key role in this fundraising effort. The campaign is being fueled by a large number of small donations, often sent through Mybarackobama.com; these small donors are a source of funds that are very cost-effective to collect. These donors can be tapped repeatedly for further contributions before they reach federal campaign caps (Clinton's campaign relies on a smaller number of larger donations, and has suffered for this reliance on such big givers when they reach their caps).
There are crucial competitive advantages to Obama's fundraising apparatus that make it a more effective tool than Catalist. Supporter-entered data can be used to microtarget them in the future with messages tailored to motivate them to support Obama (and other candidates -- see below). The vast numbers of small donations that have come through the internet and through other fundraising means are often in amounts smaller than $200. This has allowed the campaign to exploit a loophole in campaign finance laws. Contributions smaller than $200 do not have to be itemized or disclosed to Federal campaign authorities. Transparency suffers. The names of these donors never become part of the public domain and thus cannot be accessed by other politicians in the future when they seek financial support for their own campaigns (see, "Secret Money Floods Campaigns"). However, the Obama campaign will have and keep records on them.
Collecting superdelegate support
Superdelegates include a large number of elected officials (all Democratic governors and Congressmen and other Democratic Party mandarins) who need to run their own campaigns, now and in the future. All politicians loathe the grind they need to endure to fundraise: endless phone calls asking for money, parties and events they need to attend to generate support, names they need to recall, egos they need to soothe and massage.
How helpful it would be to have one source they can rely upon to avoid some of the the money grubbing they have to engage in to run a campaign?
They now have one: Barack Obama.
His website admits that it
Clearly, Barack Obama intends to wield this power for his own political purposes. He can channel donations and, more importantly information (after all, we live in the Information Age) to other candidates to help them when they run for office. Even if Senator Obama fails to become President, he will become a power broker in the years to come. He owns a gold mine and will permit other candidates to dig for supporters and donors **. These candidates include the crucial few hundred superdelegates whose support he needs to become the Democratic nominee for President.
Are there any indications that Barack Obama -- who prides himself on being above political gamesmanship -- would engage in such a strategy?
Yes. He has been doing so under the radar screen for years. The Center for Responsive Politics -- a non-partisan group -- has "opened a fascinating window into the world of superdelegates" in the words of this ABC News report (which notes that Hillary has also used this tactic, but that Obama -- perhaps because he has more money to play with -- has been sending a much larger amount of money to superdelegates).
Since 2005, Barack Obama has donated three times as much as Senator Clinton to Democratic superdelagates. The study found that the presidential candidate who gave more money to superdelegates received the endorsements 82 percent of the time. As noted in the Weekly Standard,
It is a sad statement about the Democratic Party that a few hundred superdelegates may, in essence, be casting their lot for Barack Obama in order to bolster their own campaigns.
Ironically or tellingly, Barack Obama has decried the influence of money in politics and has called for greater transparency as key to restoring the faith of Americans in their politicians and in their government. He also promised to accept federal funding for his campaign should his Republican opponent agree to do so; McCain has agreed to do so. Now Barack Obama has refused to abide by his previous promise.
Nevertheless, he has cast himself as a new type of politicians who eschews the old type of politics
Yet, Barack Obama earned his political spurs in Chicago (as did his campaign gurus). In the Windy City, backroom deals behind closed doors are how business is done -- especially if the room has been swept for listening devices. In Chicago, "pay to play" is a political maxim and patronage is a synonym for politics. These are tools that work in the past and they seemingly will once again in the future.
Welcome to Chicago politics, writ large.
* An index: Obama has 790,000 Facebook friends (minus one: Jeremiah Wright was recently "de-friended"), compared with 150,000 for Clinton and a mere 117,000 for McCain.
** Superdelegates might also be offered, sotte voce or implicitly, support from the vast archipelago of 527 groups supported by Barack Obama's major supporter, billionaire George Soros.
Ed Lasky is news editor of American Thinker.