It is eerily quiet at Barack Obama's headquarters, an open expanse that takes up the entire 11th floor of an office tower in Chicago's Loop. It's nearly as silent as a study hall, which is appropriate, since most of the 20- or 30-somethings in it wear jeans and T shirts. They could be working on their Ph.D.s or at a high-tech startup.
Yet, as unassuming as it seems, this is the engine room of a novel grass-roots machine that may soon have another purpose: to help Obama govern the country. If he wins, it also could cause him headaches: if you live by viral marketing, you can die by it, too. "His supporters have sky-high expectations and expect to be involved," says Will Marshall, who studied the Obama organization for the Democratic Leadership Council. "They are loyal but not easy to control."
Like FDR and Ronald Reagan, Obama is an innovator in organizing and communicating. Roosevelt was the first to rely on labor unions, and he talked intimately to voters through the then new medium of radio. Reagan built and benefited from a new conservative movement that perfected direct mail and established think tanks to conjure ideas that the former actor could mass-market.
FDR and Reagan communicated mainly in one direction—down. But Obama is claiming to be more: the first communal candidate, a man of twoway streets. Campaign volunteers make key organizing decisions; they also have access to voter lists, traditionally guarded by headquarters. "We have a very trusting organization," David Plouffe, the campaign manager, told me.
The resulting bottom line is astounding: 3.1 million contributors, 5 million volunteers, 2.2 million supporters on his main Facebook page, 800,000 on his MySpace page and perhaps a million more names on Obama's own campaign Web site. Even discounting for likely duplicates, Plouffe says he could end up "knowing" almost 7 million voters by Election Day—roughly one in 10 of Obama's likely total. "These are people who are responsive," he says. "They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what we do."
And so they will be if Obama is elected. "If he wins, he's going to have a personal following he can use to press his agenda," says Marshall. "He can use these millions to reach over the heads of the Washington insiders, the Democrats on the Hill. It could be powerful."
It could also cause Obama problems. Much of America may be gung-ho about putting more troops into Afghanistan, but it's not clear Obamaworld is; he could run into opposition if he seriously pursues it. On the other hand, initiating talks with Iranian and Venezuelan dictators enjoys more support on his e-mail lists than in the rest of the country. If the Democrats win bigger majorities in the House and Senate, they (if not Obama) may well be eager to exact vengeance on Republicans, or at least cram Democratic ideas down GOP throats. Obama supporters might prefer more reaching-out. As Marshall sees it, most of them want a "transpartisan" approach that jettisons the old labels. "These people feel a close, personal tie to Obama, just as conservatives did to Reagan," he says. "But if and when he starts governing, he is going to start disappointing them."
At that point, the names on those voter and e-mail lists may start talking to each other, and may start saying things that Barack Obama—and White House aides hunched over their computers—don't want to hear. That's when we'll know how "trusting" an organization it really is.