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The Key-Chain Campaign
Atlanta businessman Kirk Dornbush has raised millions of dollars for the Democratic Party and its candidates over the past 16 years. Before campaign-finance laws banned unregulated soft money, he recalls, there were times he walked around with six-figure checks in both pockets of his jacket. But these days, he does much of his fund raising in a much humbler fashion: selling $3 key chains and $25 T shirts at Obama rallies. At the first merchandise table Dornbush set up for a Georgia event, "we were just completely sold out," he says. "There were lines of people. It was unbelievable."
Dornbush's experience explains the second fundamental change Obama has brought to politics: his campaign was built from the bottom up. Even fund raising, once the realm of the richest in politics, became a grassroots organizational tool. At nearly every event this year, Team Obama set up little tabletop trinket shops, known as "chum stores" because all those little Obama-branded doodads aren't only keepsakes; they are also bait. Every person who buys a button or hat is recorded as a campaign donor. But the real goal of the chum operations was building a list of workers, supporters and their e-mail addresses.
A similar innovation came in fund raising. Normally, it is only the big donors who get quality time with a candidate. But Obama devoted far more of his schedule to small-dollar events. In Kentucky, the month after he announced his run for President, the first such effort quickly sold out all 3,200 tickets at $25 a head and produced the beginning of a local organization. "It's the difference between hunting and farming," says Obama moneyman Matthew Barzun, 37, the Louisville Internet-publishing entrepreneur who arranged the event. "You plant a seed, and you get much more."
Obama uses a different frame of reference. "As somebody who had been a community organizer," Obama recalls, "I was convinced that if you invited people to get engaged, if you weren't trying to campaign like you were selling soap but instead said, 'This is your campaign, you own it, and you can run with it,' that people would respond and we could build a new electoral map." The chum stores, the e-mail obsession and the way Obama organizations sprang up organically in almost every congressional district in the country meant that by the time Obama's field organizers arrived in a state, all they had to do was fire up an engine that had already been designed and built locally. "We had to rely on the grass roots, and we had clarity on that from the beginning," says Plouffe.
By contrast, the Clinton campaign, which started out with superior resources and the mantle of inevitability, was a top-down operation in which decision-making rested with a small coterie of longtime aides. Her state organizers often got mixed signals from the headquarters near Washington. Decisions from Hillaryland often came too late for her field organization to execute. Obama's bottom-up philosophy also helps explain why he was able to sweep the organization-heavy caucus states, which were so crucial to building up his insurmountable lead in pledged delegates. What was not appreciated by many at the time: while Clinton spent heavily in every state she contested, Obama's approach saved money. Says Dean-campaign veteran Trippi: "His volunteers were organizing his caucus victories for free."
Obama Means No Drama
The team that Obama put together was a mix of people who, for the most part, had never worked together before but behaved as if they had. Some like chief strategist David Axelrod and adviser Valerie Jarrett came from Chicago and had advised Obama in earlier races. Axelrod's business partner Plouffe had worked in former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt's operation; deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, who oversaw the field organization, had come from former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle's. Daschle's former chief of staff Pete Rouse served that same role in Obama's Senate office, from which the candidate also brought aboard communications director Robert Gibbs, who had briefly worked for John Kerry. Obama tapped the business world as well, filling key operational posts with executives who had worked for Orbitz, McDonald's and other firms.
And yet, Obama says, they all had the same philosophy. "Because I was not favored, that meant that the people who signed up for this campaign really believed in what the campaign was about. So they weren't mercenaries. They weren't coming in to just attach to a campaign," he explains. Temperament mattered too. "It was very important to have a consistent team," Obama says, "a circle of people who were collaborative and nondefensive."
Like the team around Bush, Obama's is watertight. Leaks are rare, and for all the millions Obama has raked in, Plouffe keeps a sharp eye on where it is going. Consider the salaries: Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson was paid almost twice as much in a month $266,000 went to his firm, according to her January campaign filing as the $144,000 that Obama paid Gibbs for all of last year. Obama staffers are expected to double up in hotel rooms when they are on the road and are reimbursed by the campaign if they take the subway (about $2) to the downtown-Chicago campaign headquarters from O'Hare International Airport but not if they take a cab (about $50). Volunteers are asked to take along their own food when they are canvassing.
How will a team that has been living off the land fare against the kind of G.O.P. operation that was so effective at turning out the traditional Republican base in 2004? John McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, flatly declares that what got Obama the nomination "is not a general-election strategy" and contends that Obama's operation will be weak against McCain's crossover appeal in such states as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nevada.
Maybe so, but compared with McCain's, Obama's operation has been a model of efficiency and executive function. Obama has already changed the way politics is practiced in America and he is poised to keep doing so. After delivering his dramatic victory speech in St. Paul, Minn., Obama walked offstage and spent the next 45 minutes signing dozens and dozens of his books that had been brought to the Xcel Center by admirers. When he finished, he happened to see fund raiser Dornbush and told him, "Enjoy the celebration tonight." Then Obama took a few steps, turned around and added, "But it's right back to work tomorrow."