After deciding to commit a significant chunk of his time to volunteer for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign just outside Cleveland in early February, Rich VanOverberg faced a low-tech dilemma. He couldn't get timely access to any campaign paraphernalia that would help him spread his candidate's brand.
"The Ohio primary was coming up, and I knew I couldn't buy any supplies online," says VanOverberg, a 39-year-old advertising executive who lives in Avon Lake, a town in the western suburbs of Cleveland. "When I tried buying supplies [at the Barack Obama store] I would get a note saying that it had a back-order time of six to eight weeks. I immediately started posting desperate pleas for supplies for Ohio."
VanOverberg made the plea at ObamaCycle, a Web 2.0 version (in spirit at least) of Craigslist for Obama campaign paraphernalia. He says he received his first package of used campaign materials from a volunteer in Iowa a week later. Then more items started trickling in from all over the country. One supporter sent VanOverberg a "rally pack" of about 50 T-shirts, rally signs, bumper stickers, buttons and lapel pins that would have set him back $300 if he had bought them through the store.
ObamaCycle is the latest example of how enthusiastic voters are using the web in novel ways to organize for their candidate. Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul's supporters last year used online bulletin boards to brainstorm and to create fundraising "money bombs." His Republican rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has the support of a national grassroots organization called Huck's Army -- to cite another example of a growing phenomenon.
The Obama site is the brainchild of Furqan Nazeeri, an entrepreneur-in-residence at Softbank Capital just outside of Boston. Nazeeri says on his blog that he supports Obama because he identifies with Obama's immigrant background, and because of his legislative record, his leadership skills and his charisma.
"I'm an entrepreneur who is a big Obama supporter," he explains on his profile page on ObamaCycle. "I also happen to be interested in things that reduce, reuse and recycle. So when I saw a bunch of posts on the Obama campaign website talking about needing materials, I figured I'd set up ObamaCycle.com."
So far, 842 users have signed up at the site, which was mentioned by several Obama supporters on their blogs on Obama's official campaign site. The supporters are all over the country, but appear to be in the same predicament as VanOverberg.
The site requires users to register and create a profile. Users can post messages to each other on site, or they can create blog postings to advertise their needs and offers on the site's front page. The site also has integrated, voter-generated video and photo feeds supporting the candidate.
Back in Ohio, VanOverberg used the last of his Obama signs Tuesday night for an "Obama parade" that he participated in, which featured a high school drumming group. Marchers paraded through a blizzard for six blocks to rally outside the MSNBC debate between Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton at Cleveland State University.
"If you just go with a jacket on and yell 'Obama,' you just don't have as much of a presence," says VanOverberg. "I think it can be a knife in the back of a campaign not to have [signs].... I think they can really show momentum, and they work well on TV and in pictures."