Mar 6, 2008

Barack Obama: "The Machinery of Hope"

Inside the grass-roots field operation of Barack Obama, who is transforming the way political campaigns are run.

It's Presidents day, two weeks before the Texas primary, and Adam Ukman has come to the small city of San Marcos to train precinct captains for Barack Obama. A soft-spoken native of Houston, Ukman has served on the campaign's front lines in Iowa and Utah, organizing grass-roots supporters to secure decisive victories in both states. This evening, more than eighty residents of San Marcos have crammed into a yellow clapboard recreation center on a street dotted with shacks that date from the Jim Crow era. "Our job is not to run in here to tell you how it's going to be," Ukman tells them. "This is your campaign. Not our campaign."

Anyone who has spent time around Democratic politics has heard this kind of rhetoric before. Most often, it's pure horseshit. But Ukman is not here to break in a batch of untrained organizers. He knows that there is literally hundreds of years of organizing experience in the room — all he needs to do is set it loose. There's Michael Collins, an old-school politico in a tan Stetson who chaired John F. Kennedy's campaign in West Texas in 1960. A few seats over is Sandra Tenorio, who oversaw immigration issues for Gov. Ann Richards in the 1990s. And there's "Big Bob" Barton, a fixture of local party races since he worked as a volunteer for Gene McCarthy in '68. "I first voted for a Democrat more than fifty years ago," he barks out in his dry baritone. "I try not to fall in love with too many men, but this is the best damn one we've had since John Kennedy."

What Ukman is doing here in the rec center in the Hill Country of Texas is something new in American politics. Over the past year, the Obama campaign has quietly worked to integrate the online technologies that fueled the rise of Howard Dean —as well as social-networking and video tools that didn't even exist in 2004 — with the kind of neighbor-to-neighbor movement-building that Obama learned as a young organizer on the streets of Chicago. "That's the magic of what they've done," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the Democratic think tank NDN. "They've married the incredibly powerful online community they built with real on-the-ground field operations. We've never seen anything like this before in American political history."

In the process, the Obama campaign has shattered the top-down, command-and-control, broadcast-TV model that has dominated American politics since the early 1960s. "They have taken the bottom-up campaign and absolutely perfected it," says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Dean's Internet campaign in 2004. "It's light-years ahead of where we were four years ago. They'll have 100,000 people in a state who have signed up on their Web site and put in their zip code. Now, paid organizers can get in touch with people at the precinct level and help them build the organization bottom up. That's never happened before. It never was possible before."

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