So maybe the Obama core does “look like Facebook.” Mr. Penn’s remark, made at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa and reported by The Politico, was cited by both Mr. Rospars and Mr. Hughes in separate interviews.
Virtual phone banks greatly benefited Mr. Obama. During the primaries, volunteers could sign in online, receive a list of phone numbers and make calls from home. The volunteers made hundreds of thousands of calls last winter and spring. At the end of June, the Obama campaign began carefully opening up its files of voters to online supporters, making it easier to find out which Democratic-leaning neighbors to call and which registered-independent doors to knock on.
One goal is to drive online energy into in-person support. From January to April, for instance, the Obama campaign spent $3 million on online advertising to steer would-be voters to their polling places with online tools that tell people where to vote. The locators “are hard to build, but once you build them, they have a very high return on investment,” Mr. Hughes said.
Much of the technology in the Obama toolbox was pioneered by Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “We were like the Wright brothers,” said Joe Trippi, the Web mastermind of the Dean campaign. The Obama team, he added, “skipped Boeing, Mercury, Gemini — they’re Apollo 11, only four years later.”
Mr. Rospars and other former Dean aides formed a consulting firm, Blue State Digital, to refine their techniques. The Obama campaign purchased the backbone of MyBo from Blue State and has set out to improve it. “It’s still TheFacebook,” Mr. Hughes said, comparing Mr. Obama’s current site to the earliest and narrowest version of Facebook. “It’s still very, very rough around the edges.”
Last month, acknowledging that attacks during the general election are likely to be more vociferous, the Obama campaign tried to capitalize on its network by creating a Web page, FightTheSmears.com. Through that site, the campaign hopes that supporters will act as a truth squad working to untangle accusations, as bloggers have informally in other campaigns and as many did when CBS reported on President Bush’s National Guard service in 2004.
People who have posted on the site have already taken up five rumors, including that Mr. Obama was not born in the United States (a birth certificate was displayed) and that he does not put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance (the site links to a YouTube video of him doing so).
Republican strategists say, wryly, that Senator McCain’s 2000 campaign was innovative in its use of technology. (The candidate held a groundbreaking virtual fund-raiser and enabled supporters to sign up online.) But that was back when Mr. McCain ran as an outsider; as the presumptive nominee, he is no longer an upstart. His social network, called McCainSpace and part of JohnMcCain.com, is “virtually impossible to use and appears largely abandoned,” said Adam Ostrow, the editor of Mashable, a blog about social networking.
By all accounts, Mr. McCain is not the BlackBerry-wielding politician that Mr. Obama is. But he has given credit to what he calls Mr. Obama’s “excellent use of the Internet,” saying at a news conference last month that “we are working very hard at that as well.” The McCain campaign recently reintroduced its Web site and hired new bloggers to broaden its online presence.
Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist who was the Webmaster for President Bush’s 2004 campaign, said that a campaign’s culture largely determines its digital strategy. The McCain campaign “could hire the best people, build the best technology, and adopt the best tactics” on the Internet. “But it would have to be in sync with the candidate and the campaign,” Mr. Ruffini said.
Mr. Hughes and other Obama aides say that their candidate gravitates naturally toward social networking, so much so that he even filled out his own Facebook profile two years ago. Mr. Obama has pledged that if he is elected, he will hire a chief technology officer; Mr. Hughes’s face lights up at the thought.
Other administrations have adapted to the Internet, “but they haven’t valued it,” he said.
Mr. Hughes has not decided whether to return to Facebook, and the decision does hinge in part on the fate of the campaign. But the lessons he has learned in political life seem to reinforce those learned in Silicon Valley.
“You can have the best technology in the world,” he said, “but if you don’t have a community who wants to use it and who are excited about it, then it has no purpose.”