I have been following the rise of Barack Obama in US politics with huge interest. I first read about him on the Internet only four years ago. When I heard that he was interested in running for US president, my immediate reaction was that he was just playing games. Although he is a huge inspiration, the odds were heavily stuck against him. He was a young, seemingly inexperienced senator competing against Hillary Rodman Clinton, who is not only one of the most prominent women in the Democratic party but also a wife to Bill Clinton, the former president of the USA.

As expected, Hillary Clinton began her presidential bid as the overwhelming favourite even within the party establishment. Even though Obama managed to win the first primary in  Iowa, I was still not convinced that he would beat Clinton. I was of the view that the win in Iowa was just a fluke. But as the primaries went on, Obama ended up winning a majority of pledged delegates, gaining more superdelegates than Clinton along the way and eventually winning the nomination.

A number of political pundits have analysed Obama’s success.I have enjoyed reading the analyses by the Telegraph , the Institute for the Politics, Democracy and the Internet (IPDI) and the Houston Chronicle.The Telegraph points out that Clinton camp- then the most powerful brand in Democratic politics- had heavily underestimated Barack Obama. They believed that their greatest threat was John Edwards. They thought that they would have wrapped up the nomination by Super Tuesday, February 5. When she appeared on ABC’s This Week on Dec. 30, 2007, Clinton herself is recorded to have said

I’m in it for the long run.It’s not a very long run.It’ll be over by Feb.5.

This has been widely described as a huge miscalculation.The Houston Chronicle reports that Clinton spent every penny she had raised by Super Tuesday. She had little organization in the states that followed and was outspent by 4-to-1 by Obama who went on to win 11 contests in a row, most of them caucuses, and Clinton never caught up. With this development, it eventually became increasingly difficult for her to raise money for her campaign because most of her high dollar-donors had reached their contribution limits such that she had to make loans to her own campaign.

The Power of the Swarm

The biggest weapon of the Obama campaign is the ability to build a formidable grassroots organisation, in which every member is considered to be very important for the success of the movement. Members  own the movement. Obama, himself, says

I am asking you to believe.Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington…I am asking you to believe in yours as well.

Obama seems to understand the fact that God has blessed each one of us, whether small or big, rich or poor, young or old with unique skills and abilities which when brought together can produce something great. Obama seems to understand the fact that each and every human being has his own limitations. But when we put our efforts together we can create limitless opportunities. Have you ever heard of the Tower of Babel? This is kind of behaviour is known as Swarm Intelligence. I have already discussed it in two previous posts. Ants, birds, bees and many other small living things use this principle for their survival. They selflessly support each other by guiding each other to shortest paths between the nest and food sources. If a member of a swarm has unique information, it shares that information with the rest of the swarm. Similarly, most of the members of Obama grassroots movement are ordinary people but when they put their small efforts together they create a big thing. They worked hard canvassing for both large and small contests and amazingly the small victories contributed to Obama’s overall win in a big way.The Obama campaign  is raising huge sums of money simply because these ordinary people contribute their $25,$50 etc. With this kind of contributions, they can contribute again and again before reaching their limits.  Of course, there are some big donors as well but their number is not as huge compared to Clinton’s campaign.As of today, there are more than 1.7 million donors towards the Obama campaign.

When ordinary people, driven by the urgency of now, came together and shared their ideas, they unanimously concluded that for the Obama campaign to be successful they had to steer it away from a politics-as-usual approach and make it a technology based movement. They realized that the Internet reaches far more people in a much faster and cheaper way than the traditional modes of communication. As a result, some geeks within the movement set up the Barack Obama website as a social networking platform where members of the movement could make contributions, discuss recent developments, encourage each other to make phone calls and canvass for upcoming contests etc. Every member has his/her own blog at the Obama site. Although I live in Tokyo, thousands of miles away from USA, I  created my own Obama blog just recently after he had already wrapped up the nomination. From the discussions at Obama’s site, I have noted that there are lots of people outside the USA who would want to make financial contributions to the Obama camapign but cannot do so because it is illegal. Besides his own site, Obama is a very popular figure on Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr, Digg and many other social networking sites. Ironically, a few weeks ago, his opponent, John McCain, admitted that he doesn’t know how to use a computer. As November approaches, I will follow  the dynamics of the Obama’s change oriented swarm with great interest. Will John McCain stand the heat from this hungry swarm?