You know the drill. As election day approaches, glossy pamphlets clog your mailbox. Annoying prerecorded calls jam your answering machine. Nasty attack ads disturb your prime-time TV viewing. You are bombarded at every turn, and you take it all in, with only one responsibility in mind: remember to vote.
That's the way it used to be for Tom and Mary Bashore, a retired printer and an accounting assistant from Ephrata, Pa. But at some point in January, they stopped watching and started participating. Mary went on their home computer and found Barack Obama's website, where the couple created a personal Web page to connect with other Obama supporters in the area. A group of about 100 began meeting offline in Lancaster, assigning themselves tasks throughout the county with guidance from the campaign website.
"People were just getting together on their own," remembers Tom, 60, a brown-eyed man with a cropped mustache. "I guess you could call it grass roots." Like thousands of others, Tom downloaded phone lists so he could cold-call potential supporters in the area. Mary spent hours typing names and addresses into Obama's national database. The first paid operatives finally arrived in the area weeks later, only to find a virtually organized Obama machine already up and running. When the campaign held its first statewide training sessions in March, some 2,000 people turned up.
It has gone on like this all year for Obama as his campaign deftly exploits the biggest technological shift in national politics since the rise of television. For millions of Americans, the Internet has turned presidential politics into a fully interactive event, a chance to give money with mouse clicks and to volunteer virtually from miles away. And the Democrats have used these tools to produce historic results. In February alone Hillary Clinton was able to attract 200,000 new donors, most of them online, rescuing her campaign from the brink of bankruptcy. Obama has amassed an army of 750,000 supporters who have signed on to his website and participated in 30,000 offline events. Obama's online fund-raising eclipsed the $100 million mark in the first three months of the year, and his YouTube videos have been viewed 37 million times, a figure that would make any television executive weep. "It is a seismic change," says Michael Malbin, the executive direc tor of the Campaign Finance Institute. "This year's donors are not just givers. They are doers."
And that could spell trouble for John McCain come November. Though both Democrats have shown the ability to raise bigmoney online, McCain has been struggling to catch Internet fever. While his rivals rake in bundles of cash in small-dollar checks, McCain makes the rounds of hotel ballrooms, charming wealthy donors with traditional chicken dinners and fruit-platter mixers. In March he attended 26 fund raisers in 24 cities, raising about $15 million, with roughly one-third of it coming from the Web. Obama attended just six events in the same period, yet his campaign raised three times as much, 2 mostly online.
While McCain apparently intends to accept about $84 million in public financing after he is nominated, Obama has been moving in the opposite direction. After once vowing to take public money, he now calls his online fund-raising machine a "parallel public-financing system," which is convenient because it has no upper limit "He's got an incredible small-dollar operation," observes Charlie Black, a senior adviser to the McCain campaign. "That's a huge advantage for them."
Republicans, who once were far ahead of Democrats in whizbang TV technology, let their party fall behind the nerd curve as Howard Dean and later John Kerry revolutionized and then exploited online fund-raising in 2004. Four years later, the Democrats have widened that gap, using the Internet not only to raise cash but also to organize canvassers and plot get-out-the-vote efforts. Republicans say the Democrats' Web advantage is due to not just greater enthusiasm but also smarter strategies. "Everything Obama does is fundamentally about a people-powered democracy and apeople-powered campaign," says Mindy Finn, a Republican consultant who ran Mitt Romney's Internet operation. "McCain's message is different."
The irony is that McCain was once an Internet darling. Back in 2000, the insurgent McCain primary campaign raised more than $6 million online, shocking the conventional thinking at the time. When his current campaign began to take shape, McCain's political advisers hoped to reclaim the magic, hiring four different consulting firms with plans that called for a campaign as interactive as Obama's.
But it never got off the ground. "Based on where the campaign was financially, you knew at a certain point that it wasn't going to be the kind of online campaign that had been planned," said a former adviser to the McCain campaign.
By last fall, the bulk of McCain's online staff had been let go; his bare-bones website was the technological equivalent of a soapbox-derby car on a busy freeway. The McCain blog has been infrequently updated, many organizational tools were absent, and the social-networking feature, called McCainSpace, was left unfinished, with a note for supporters to "stay tuned." Even today, if you go to McCain's website, you are more likely than not to find a page that just asks for money and broadcasts the campaign's message, with issue papers, press releases and videos.
By contrast, Obama's website is engineered for engagement: prompts invite people to volunteer, make phone calls and find nearby events. "Don't just fill out this volunteer form and wait," it reads. "Get started on your own." The blog is maintained by a former journalist; the social-networking function is managed by a founder of Facebook.
As recently as last November, Clinton's senior advisers were dismissive of their rival's online army, saying Obama's supporters "look like Facebook." They don't feel that way anymore. Since February, when Clinton began pushing the website more as a fund-raising vehicle, Hillaryland has increasingly emphasized the opportunities for supporters to get involved in the campaign.
McCain is trying to make up ground too. He plans to relaunch his website within the next two months, adding many of the interactive features it lacks, including ones that will allow supporters to arrange house parties or write letters to the editor. The campaign is also banking on the historically superior volunteer efforts of the Republican National Committee to narrow the disparity in ground support. In 2004 the committee helped organize an estimated 1.4 million volunteers, many of whom responded to an online get-out-the-vote operation.