At last night’s Pando Monthly, New Republic publisher and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes said he found Barack Obama “inspirational,” which is why Hughes took a leave of absence to work on the Illinois Senator’s presidential campaign in 2007.
The then 24-year-old Hughes became part of a campaign that would end up rewriting the playbook on running for President. Nevertheless, “it wasn’t the technology that won the campaign,” Hughes said. “It was the people knocking on doors and getting out the vote.” But, he added, “technology enabled them.”
Hughes found a kindred spirit in Obama. “One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up,” Obama once said. “And there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet.”
With the informal title “Online Organizing Guru,” Hughes retrofitted grassroots campaigning to Web 2.0 by weaving together social networks and the mobile Internet into a central platform of Obama’s presidential campaign.
The linchpin was My.BarackObama (“MyBo,” for short), which functioned as a lively online community and social network, registering 1.5 million volunteers. There, users created profiles complete with personal descriptions, friends lists and blogs, joined one of the 27,000 groups that formed, raised money, and organized meetings and get-togethers through a Facebook-like interface. The site boasted a search function, enabling like-minded people to find one other; a fundraising page offering tools to create a personal fundraising page (“You set your own goal, you do the outreach, and you get the credit for the results”); a blog and forum drove even more traffic to the site.
Leading up to the election MyBo members organized more than 200,000 campaign events, which not only energized Obama’s base of support, it generated wads of cash.
Over two years, the campaign brought in $750 million from 3 million donors, with nine of 10 donations for less than $100 (and half for $25 or less). Instead of turning to wealthy Americans, who could be seen as leveraging their privilege into power, Obama’s campaign tapped the little guy, spreading donations across millions of Americans — giving each donor a stake in his campaign’s success. It accomplished this largely without fundraisers, which until the advent of Obama’s viral money machine, were viewed as unsavory necessities for any candidate running for office.
In February 2008, Obama’s campaign raised $55 million online without its candidate attending a single fundraiser. While the law allowed large donors to contribute $2,300 for the 2008 primaries and the same for the general election, smaller donors were tapped repeatedly, forging ongoing connections with the candidate.
In a sense, the smaller the donations, the more the campaign was able to invest in its supporters, who could be counted on to raise money, knock on doors and spread campaign memes.
When Sarah Lacy, who was conducting interview, asked Hughes if he had taken more credit for the campaign’s success than perhaps he deserved, Hughes said, “We tend to look for heroes. We tend to look for mythological figures. I came in with a sensibility for the Internet and social Web.” And, he pointed out, he hired the team of young social media and Internet gurus who helped design the team’s pro-tech approach.
Still, Hughes credited David Axelrod and David Plouffe with being the campaigns true architects. “What was meaningful, what animated people, was their hope in the president.”
“The tech,” he added, “doesn’t matter if you don’t have the movement.”
[Photo by Timothy Briner for Pandodaily]