Obama's Wide Net

Despite the different outcomes for his campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, Barack Obama won among young voters in both states--and more important, he drew them to the polls in unprecedented numbers. People under 30 made up a third of his support in Iowa--four times the margin of victory--and their turnout was up 19 percentage points from 2004 in New Hampshire. Obama has inspired them, just as Howard Dean did last cycle, but the Chicago organizer's campaign excelled by using technology that mobilized new and young voters to actually show up and be counted.

In Iowa, Obama's aides systematically used the popular social networking site Facebook for targeting and organizing. Allison York, a 20-year-old Obama supporter and student at Iowa's Drake University, spent six hours of her winter break driving from her parents' Wichita home to Des Moines to a caucus location she found through Facebook. Another student launched a Facebook challenge that recruited more than a million supporters for Obama across the country. And one field organizer created a group for Iowans pledging to caucus for Obama--the first web version of the famous "supporter cards" that candidates urge voters to sign--drawing more than 1,000 people who were not in the party database. "We try to just go where the people are," explained Obama's online organizer in Iowa. "Facebook, because of its size, is where the people are, which is why we've taken it so seriously as a campaign."

Obama's official Facebook profile has about 200,000 "friends"--more than triple Hillary Clinton's network and six times John Edwards's yield. Clinton's top strategists once mocked those numbers, telling reporters, "Our people look like caucus-goers [and Obama's] look like Facebook." But after Clinton placed third in Iowa, they hastily tried to catch up. She toured New Hampshire with students, held "roundtables with young undecided voters," talked up a new idea for a "government blogging team" and launched an "Ask Hillary" Facebook feature on the day of the New Hampshire debate (which was co-sponsored by Facebook and ABC News). Those efforts paid off, giving her a boost among young people above her Iowa showing, but it's probably too late for her to overtake Obama in organic online support. Beyond Facebook, Obama has the most friends on MySpace and BlackPlanet--about 630,000 combined--and the most traffic by far on YouTube, where people can watch him sans media filter. (After Obama's stirring Iowa victory speech was uploaded, his official channel alone spiked by more than 1.5 million views.) Obama is also remarkably popular on apolitical Internet terrain. He regularly ranks atop Eventful, an entertainment site that helps fans join forces to request local concerts by their favorite bands. He netted appearance requests from eighty towns in Iowa and has held his own against rock stars across the country, currently ranking third behind the rap group Wu-Tang Clan.

Obama's aides have not simply been riding a wave of hit websites; they also built their own social networking portal to connect and empower activists. Chris Hughes, a 24-year-old co-founder of Facebook, joined the Obama campaign to build MyBO, which invites users to network, blog and promote grassroots events. Unlike many campaigns that treat web politics as a separate silo, Obama's field program is tightly integrated with MyBO. Iowa organizers were required to post all their events on the site and encouraged to write MyBO blog posts, vetted by the campaign, about local efforts. And the campaign trusts supporters to post whatever they want, from house parties to fundraising ideas to blog commentaries....