A Real Grassroots Campaign

by on July 3, 2008 · 3 comments

The most popular group on my.barackobama.com, the social networking service that lies at the heart of Barack Obama’s wildly successful online strategy, is now the one titled “Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right.” Created just over a week ago, it now has 16883 members, up from about 7000 members 48 hours ago. That compares to “Action Wire” with 13488 members and “Students for Barack Obama” with just 8704 members.

Social media are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, if harnessed effectively it can be a devastatingly effective way to mobilize large numbers of people toward a common goal. But the flip side is that the people have to want to be harnessed in the direction you want to go. If you start to betray the principles that attracted all those thousands of enthusiastic volunteers in the first place, they’re able to use the same potent organizational tools to express their dissatisfaction.

Democrats have been running left for the primaries and right for the general election for decades. (And Republicans, of course have done the reverse) Until recently, there simply wasn’t much party activists could do about it. The only organization with the scale and resources to mobilize a candidates supporters was the candidate’s campaign itself, and the campaign obviously isn’t a vehicle for criticizing the candidate. So once a candidate had the nomination in hand, he could safely ignore his “base” and focus on courting centrist voters.

The Internet may shift that balance, at least slightly. Almost all of the people in the “Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right” group will probably still vote for the Illinois Senator, and most of them will probably continue giving him money later in the campaign. But defying the will of your base is still more expensive than it used to be. Being able to find others who feel the way you do, and to speak with a unified voice, is a powerful thing. The existence of the “Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right” group (along with the various other liberal blogs that are saying less polite things about Obama’s FISA capitulation) will, on the margin, reduce grassroots enthusiasm for his candidacy, depressing contributions and volunteering opportunities. That means that selling out your base has a higher cost than it used to, and future candidates will need to bear that in mind.

Plus, the group hasn’t stopped growing. It went from 7000 to 17,000 in about 2 days. There’s at least another 5 days until the election, and there are certainly more than 17,000 Obama supporters who are dissatisfied with Obama’s FISA stance. If the group keeps growing, it may reach the point where Obama simply can’t ignore it.

Update: This is the sort of thing I’m talking about:

First, Senator Obama, we ask that you make the same tools that we used to call undecided voters in Iowa and New Hampshire available for us to call our fellow citizens in West Virginia, Nebraska, Delaware, Florida and other states that have Senators committed to voting against the amendment that would strip telecom immunity. You have the tools and we have the people power. Together, we are confident we can bring Change; we can make the government listen to the people instead of the telecom lobbyists.

Second, Senator Obama, we ask that you attend the Senate debate and schedule floor time to speak about the violence done to the rule of law when Congress retroactively immunizes the illegal conduct of a special interest. We know you understand that justice should not be sold to the highest special interest bidder; we also know that you can persuade other Senators that are not so clear on the issue. Of course, if you do this, our committed members will surely capture the video of your inspiring oratory, load it to YouTube and spread your words to our friends and family far and wide. We trust in your ability to bring a new way of doing business to Washington and look forward to helping you make that Change a reality.

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