That early fund-raiser [in February 2007] and others like it were important to Obama in several respects. As someone attempting to build a campaign on the fly, he needed money to operate. As someone who dared challenge Hillary Clinton, he needed a considerable amount of it. And as a newcomer to national politics, though he had grassroots appeal, he needed to establish credibility by making inroads to major donors—most of whom, in California as elsewhere, had been locked down by the Clinton campaign.
Silicon Valley was a notable exception. The Internet was still in its infancy when Bill Clinton last ran for president, in 1996, and most of the immense fortunes had not yet come into being; the emerging tech class had not yet taken shape. So, unlike the magnates in California real estate (Walter Shorenstein), apparel (Esprit founder Susie Tompkins Buell), and entertainment (name your Hollywood celeb), who all had long-established loyalty to the Clintons, the tech community was up for grabs in 2007. In a colossal error of judgment, the Clinton campaign never made a serious approach, assuming that Obama would fade and that lack of money and cutting-edge technology couldn’t possibly factor into what was expected to be an easy race. Some of her staff tried to arrange “prospect meetings” in Silicon Valley, but they were overruled. “There was massive frustration about not being able to go out there and recruit people,” a Clinton consultant told me last year. As a result, the wealthiest region of the wealthiest state in the nation was left to Barack Obama.
Furthermore, in Silicon Valley’s unique reckoning, what everyone else considered to be Obama’s major shortcomings—his youth, his inexperience—here counted as prime assets.
[John Roos, Obama’s Northern California finance chair and the CEO of the Palo Alto law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati]: “… we recognize what great companies have been built on, and that’s ideas, talent, and inspirational leadership.”
The true killer app on My.BarackObama.com is the suite of fund-raising tools. You can, of course, click on a button and make a donation, or you can sign up for the subscription model, as thousands already have, and donate a little every month. You can set up your own page, establish your target number, pound your friends into submission with e-mails to pony up, and watch your personal fund-raising “thermometer” rise. “The idea,” [Joe Rospars, a veteran of Dean’s campaign who had gone on to found an Internet fund-raising company and became Obama’s new-media director] says, “is to give them the tools and have them go out and do all this on their own.”
“What’s amazing,” says Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute, “is that Hillary built the best campaign that has ever been done in Democratic politics on the old model—she raised more money than anyone before her, she locked down all the party stalwarts, she assembled an all-star team of consultants, and she really mastered this top-down, command-and-control type of outfit. And yet, she’s getting beaten by this political start-up that is essentially a totally different model of the new politics.”
Before leaving Silicon Valley, I stopped by the local Obama headquarters. It was a Friday morning in early March, and the circus had passed through town more than a month earlier, after Obama lost the California primary by nine points. Yet his headquarters was not only open but jammed with volunteers. Soon after I arrived, everyone gathered around a speakerphone, and Obama himself, between votes on the Senate floor, gave a brief hortatory speech telling volunteers to call wavering Edwards delegates in Iowa before the county conventions that Saturday (they took place two months after the presidential caucuses). Afterward, people headed off to rows of computers, put on telephone headsets, and began punching up phone numbers on the Web site, ringing a desk bell after every successful call. The next day, Obama gained nine delegates, including a Clinton delegate.
The most striking thing about all this was that the headquarters is entirely self-sufficient—not a dime has come from the Obama campaign. Instead, everything from the computers to the telephones to the doughnuts and coffee—even the building’s rent and utilities—is user-generated, arranged and paid for by local volunteers. It is one of several such examples across the country, and no other campaign has put together anything that can match this level of self-sufficiency.
But while his rivals continued to depend on big givers, Obama gained more and more small donors, until they finally eclipsed the big ones altogether. In February, the Obama campaign reported that 94 percent of their donations came in increments of $200 or less, versus 26 percent for Clinton and 13 percent for McCain. Obama’s claim of 1,276,000 donors through March is so large that Clinton doesn’t bother to compete; she stopped regularly providing her own number last year.
“If the typical Gore event was 20 people in a living room writing six-figure checks,” Gorenberg told me, “and the Kerry event was 2,000 people in a hotel ballroom writing four-figure checks, this year for Obama we have stadium rallies of 20,000 people who pay absolutely nothing, and then go home and contribute a few dollars online.” Obama himself shrewdly capitalizes on both the turnout and the connectivity of his stadium crowds by routinely asking them to hold up their cell phones and punch in a five-digit number to text their contact information to the campaign—to win their commitment right there on the spot.