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Helms and Obama - Co-Revolutionaries

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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Chapel Hill, NC - It is over at last!

Now it is time to start trying to figure out what this election means.

In doing some of that figuring, we are going to come up with some startling conclusions.

For instance, here is one that I bet you will not readily accept: Barack Obama and Jesse Helms are comparable figures in the history of American politics.

What! I can hear you shouting. No two people could be farther from each other in terms of their impact on public life.

Well, wait a minute and think about this.

First of all, each had more relevant political experience and talent than the experts saw in them at the beginning of their big campaigns (Helms for U.S. Senate and Obama for the presidency).

Each them knew a lot more about national politics, about organizing, and about motivating supporters than their "more experienced" opponents. Both were smart, effective communicators. They were energetic and tireless workaholics—of the Energizer variety. They were genuinely interested in people they met and had an ability to charm them. Their real personal interest in individuals and their problems translated into a special kind of charisma that, though hard to measure, translated into big political assets.

As William Link's recent authoritative biography shows in detail, Helms's background as a newspaper, radio, and TV reporter and commentator and his experience as a campaign organizer and staffer for other public figures gave him talents that equipped him to campaign and to serve in high office.

Obama's work as a lawyer, teacher, and community organizer prepared him to put together a powerful campaign organization, motivate it, and persuade millions of skeptics to support his candidacy.

These similarities between these two smart, practical, and very competitive people are noteworthy. But another similarity is more important.

Both men transformed American political campaign financing. Each found a way around political candidates' traditional reliance on the campaign contributions of political fat cats. Each found a different way to tap an incredible fundraising potential of millions of small givers.

Beginning in his first senate campaign, Jesse Helms built a political machine that bypassed the traditional political bosses and fundraisers. He and his colleagues put together a fundraising powerhouse that gave little people across the country a way to contribute small amounts of money over and over again. Small amounts from a lot of people turned into the big bucks that gave Helms an independent, personal, and gigantic pot of money to play politics.

Helms's organization used direct mail to communicate fundraising messages. It built mailing lists of reliable supporters who would respond to Helms's appeals over and over again because they believed in what he stood for.

The power that Helms achieved through modern (at the time) fundraising methods turned politics upside down.

Obama did the same thing in the election cycle that just ended. His team used modern techniques to put the Obama fundraising message regularly into the computers of tens of millions of people who were willing to make repeated gifts of small amounts of money. These small gifts multiplied by the millions who gave them did for Obama what Helms's direct mail systems did for him.

The positive side of Helms's and Obama's accomplishments is that both methods made it possible to transfer much of the responsibility of raising political money from the big fat cats, the lobbyists, the political insiders, and those who want special favors from government---transferring it to small givers whose motivation is not generally personal, but political or ideological.

The Helms and Obama fund raising revolutions are not all good. We will have to address some of negative side effects. But first, let's get used to seeing these two as "co-revolutionaries."


D.G. Martin is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30pm and Sundays at 5 p.m. Check his blog and view prior programs at

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Helms and Obama - Co-Revolutionaries

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