Saturday, June 21, 2008

Obama E-mail List Makes the Dems Salivate

Daniel Libit
Politico
Thu Jun 19, 5:19 AM ET

Five months before the November election, Democrats are beginning to fantasize about how they could use Barack Obama's massive e-mail list in the service of a Democratic administration.
By mere dint of its enormity, Obama's collection of e-mail addresses — a million and a half from donors, many more from other supporters — holds game-changing potential.

Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan says the campaign doesn't discuss the exact size of the candidate's universe of e-supporters. However, he says, one can understand the "potency of the community" by considering the donor list as well as the near-million people who have signed up on Obama's Facebook page and the 926,000 accounts registered (as of Tuesday afternoon) at my.barackobama. com.

Democratic technology strategist Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, said "the notion that Obama could harness his own special interest group in order to force legislative action is an entirely new paradigm on the American scene, driven by technology."

He compared the use of Candidate Obama's e-mail list in support of a President Obama's agenda to a "nuclear weapon," the power of which "just hasn't been quantified."

But there's no blueprint for how a president could wield such an easily contacted grass-roots following, so what Obama would do with his remains a mystery for now.

There's no shortage of ideas.

"The thing that has blown me away is how these same people [who have donated] have also done all this volunteering and helped with the get-out-the- vote effort. And if you get into a governing mode, it's unlimited how you could use this base," said Tom O'Donnell, a Democratic consultant who served as chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein says that if Obama's online moneymaking operation continues apace, it would free him in the White House from the endless procession of reelection campaign obligations, thereby allowing him greater time to spend pressing his agenda.
Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the list could be particularly effective in pressuring lawmakers in conservative strongholds.

"There are districts that are held by Republicans that Obama is going to have pretty substantial organizations in," said Lilly, "and those organizations can be used to build a network that can critique incumbent members of Congress and provide ways for candidates to remove those members and, in that way, make Republican members more cautious."

Lilly said that during the 2004 Democratic primaries, Howard Dean was able to develop some decent-sized online networks of Democrats in conservative districts, but they were ultimately untapped. He sees Obama as being able to create even larger pockets and, for the first time, deploy them.

Said Lilly: "If there's a network of even a few thousand people throughout a congressional district that are aware their member voted that way and go to the barbershop and the PTA and maybe write a letter to the local newspaper or whatever and say, 'This is disturbing to me,' that really starts to change the amount of latitude a member has to make those kinds of votes."
A number of well-positioned Democrats point to health care as a key issue for which Obama's list could make the difference. But for it to ultimately be effective, the list will have to be organized and managed effectively. And Democrats concede that communicating with supporters in nonelection years has never been the party's forte. Neither, for that matter, have its national organizing efforts in general.

Obama's online support universe has been pegged at anywhere from 4 million to 8 million, according to Patrick Ruffini, a Republican online consultant who blogs about politics and the Web.
"They solved the first challenge, which is: How do you get these people corralled on a list and activated?" Ruffini said of Obama's campaign. "The question is: What are the action items if he takes the presidency? Is it just to spam Congress, or is it something deeper than that? But it will definitely be a formidable list, no matter how you slice it."

If there are any precedents for Obama, they are much smaller in scope and almost entirely Republican. Barry Goldwater gave his list of several hundred thousand contributors to the Republican National Committee after he lost the 1964 election. Over the course of the next two decades, the RNC built it into a group of millions that became the lifeblood of the modern Republican Party.

George McGovern developed a larger list than Goldwater's when the South Dakota Democrat ran for the White House in 1972, but the Democratic National Committee didn't put much stock in the value of small contributors at the time and let it founder.

A GOP consultant who worked for the Bush-Cheney campaign said that those who would make use of Obama's list will first have to figure out who's on it — and why. Obama is such a phenomenon, the consultant said, that it's hard to know whether the people on his e-mail list are bound together by anything other than their support for him.

"In 2000, the answer was, 'I support George Bush because of tax cuts, education reform or his compassionate conservative agenda or faith-based initiative,' " the consultant said. Obama's list "could be very powerful," he added, but "it could also just be a mass of people."
Some Obama supporters concede as much.

"This isn't a group of people who are primarily motivated — drawing on my own sense of our members who are part of this same zeitgeist — to win Democratic races," said MoveOn.org Executive Director Eli Pariser. "They're in it for change on these issues. The needle you have to thread is keeping it true to that."

Steve Westly, who serves as Obama's California co-chairman and on the candidate's finance committee, said the trick to making the list work is to follow the lead of companies such as eBay, where he was employee No. 22.

When Westly went to work for the soon-to-be giant of the online auction world, the site featured just 400 different categories of stuff available for bidding. Rather than trying to think up all the other categories themselves, Westly and his 21 colleagues opened up the decision making process to eBay devotees.

"The key is: Are they smart enough to identify these people, to realize this is a skill set we need?" Westly said of the Obama campaign. "The bigger question — this is what Sen. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton missed and what the [John] McCain people can't even fathom — is: Are you willing to let go of some control?"

The Obama campaign says it knows it is walking down a two-way street.

"From the beginning," said Steve Hildebrand, Obama's national deputy campaign director, "Barack was hoping to launch a candidacy that would bring millions of new people into the political process, that would inspire them to stay active in politics so that, should he actually succeed in winning the presidency, he would have additional ability to govern with the backing of millions of activists from all 50 states who could help him pass the progressive agenda through Congress."

Bush's grass-roots operation was of a much more manageable size and, like the Clintons' "war room," was predicated on a top-down approach.

"This is different," said O'Donnell. "We've got all these people to go to the computer at home and feel part of this guy's agenda. It's something we haven't dealt with. The only constraint, in my opinion, is the creativity of people put in charge of managing this."

Copyright © 2008 Capitol News Company, LLC.

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