As Obama’s Online-Enabled Grassroots Operation Takes Shape, Do Republicans Have Anything to Match It?

Also published on HuffingtonPost

This week’s news that Obama’s 2012 campaign has already assembled a powerful army of small online donors — more than a million people have given him money so far, only half of whom did so in 2008 — provided just one of many recent glimpses into the growth of what’s shaping up to be a reelection juggernaut.

Other evidence? One million talks between current Obama volunteers and staff and people who volunteered for the candidate in 2008, which campaign manager Jim Messina characterized as actual conversations rather than just short fundraising calls. The goal: to persuade people who devoted time and money four years ago to put their training to work again, despite grumbling among some in the “professional Left” that their 2008 investment has yet to pay off substantively. Millions of people made real sacrifices to help Obama get elected the first time around, and his team is doing its best to make sure that the same thing happens over the next twelve months.

They’re not just focusing on past supporters, either, since Obama and the DNC together have already spent more than $5 million to buy online advertising to recruit new faces and new wallets. In addition to all the work on mass mobilization, Obama 2012 is also preparing for targeted outreach to traditionally Democratic groups through channels including minority-focused radio and online events like September’s Yahoo-sponsored Hispanic roundtable. Do Republicans have anything that can match this kind of combined-arms attack on all fronts?

Here’s where the Republicans’ late start in the current electoral cycle really starts to matter. Online organizing is usually incremental, like field organizing in general, since it typically starts with small cadres of activists and builds out into the larger community from there. Since it’s incremental, it rewards an early start. 2008 provides a useful example, when the long Democratic primary process helped Obama build a nationwide grassroots structure that helped prove decisive in the general election. But the current crop of Republican presidential candidates aren’t just lagging behind the current Obama compaign, which can draw on a pool of activists trained years ago, they’re also far behind their own party’s work in 2008.

I’ve argued before that Obama’s online fundraising has to be viewed as a decisive factor in his victory three years ago. Based on the numbers we’re seeing so far this year, his small donor base isn’t just sticking with him — it’s expanding. And his local volunteer base is likely going in the same direction, both because donations are a barometer of overall interest and because people who donate money to a campaign are literally invested in it and tend to work hard to see it succeed. Romney, Perry, Gingrich and their colleagues are really just starting to campaign, and they’re still mostly relying on big donors and a media-focused strategy. Gingrich’s new site for New Hampshire activists is a good start, but it’s also a long way from a national grassroots army.

Obama is looking to unleash a flood of volunteers once again, people who’ll walk blocks in their neighborhoods, make phone calls, recruit friends on Facebook, spread messaging on Twitter and via email, and of course give money. Republican activists won’t be quiet, assuming that Tea Partiers and evangelicals aren’t completely disenchanted with the eventual nominee, but so far we’re not seeing the kind of organization and training that will help Republican candidates hold their own in the ground war next fall. Viral emails are great, but they’re no substitute for a comprehensive campaign to use the internet to mobilize people to work in the real world. Republicans should take notice — unless they want voter turnout next year to look a lot like 2008.


Written by
Colin Delany
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