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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Facebooker Who Friended Obama


Last November, Mark Penn, then the chief strategist for Hillary Rodham Clinton, derisively said Barack Obama’s supporters “look like Facebook.”

“It was overwhelming for the first two months,” he recalled. “It took a while to get my bearings.”

But in fact, working on the Obama campaign may have moved Mr. Hughes closer to the center of the social networking phenomenon, not farther away.

The campaign’s new-media strategy, inspired by popular social networks like MySpace and Facebook, has revolutionized the use of the Web as a political tool, helping the candidate raise more than two million donations of less than $200 each and swiftly mobilize hundreds of thousands of supporters before various primaries.

The centerpiece of it all is, where supporters can join local groups, create events, sign up for updates and set up personal fund-raising pages. “If we did not have online organizing tools, it would be much harder to be where we are now,” Mr. Hughes said.

Mr. Obama, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, credits the Internet’s social networking tools with a “big part” of his primary season success.

“One of my fundamental beliefs from my days as a community organizer is that real change comes from the bottom up,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “And there’s no more powerful tool for grass-roots organizing than the Internet.”

Now Mr. Hughes and other campaign aides are applying the same social networking tools to try to win the general election. This time, however, they must reach beyond their base of young, Internet-savvy supporters.

By early April, Mr. Obama’s new-media team was already planning for the election by expanding its online phone-calling technology. In mid-May, to keep volunteers busy as the primaries played out, the campaign started a nationwide voter registration drive. And in late June, after Senator Clinton bowed out of the race, the millions of people on the Obama campaign’s e-mail lists were asked to rally her supporters as well as undecided voters by hosting “Unite for Change” house parties across the country. Nearly 4,000 parties were held.

The campaign’s successful new-media strategy is already being studied as a playbook for other candidates, including the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain.

“Their use of social networks will guide the way for future campaigns,” Peter Daou, Mrs. Clinton’s Internet director, said at a recent political technology conference. Mr. Daou called Mr. Obama’s online outreach “amazing.”

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