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Obama's Golden Tchotchkes

Karen Tumulty has a great piece in Time about the ways in which the Obama campaign excelled at mechanics. This riff is especially interesting:

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 grass-roots 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."

I think from here on out, it's going to be pretty standard for campaigns to have two semi-distinct (if overlapping) fundraising phases: A no-amount-is-too-little phase when you're just trying to get people in the door; and a run-up-the-numbers phase when you start generating real cash from them. Obviously some campaigns already do it this way. But it's surprising how many don't.

--Noam Scheiber