This is one of a series of reports by members of a University of Washington journalism class taught by professor David Domke. The students have been covering the presidential race in Washington, Idaho, and Texas. For more coverage by the class, go to their blog, Seattlepoliticore.org.
A few days ago, Lawrence Talbot wheeled his suitcase into a Barack Obama campaign office in downtown Austin, Texas. He works in public relations in Los Angeles but decided to stop in on his way back from a Florida business trip.
He did not know anyone in Austin and had no place to stay. He parked his suitcase in a corner of the office, sat down, and began making phone calls to Texas voters on behalf of the Illinois senator, who is in a tight race with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president.
Talbot's story might seem unique, but countless Obama volunteers have come to Texas in the past few weeks to help drive the final push for votes before the "Texas Two-Step" primary and caucus tomorrow, March 4.
They come because they are passionate about Obama's campaign but also because the Internet has made it easy for them to identify where to go to help out.
Once Talbot decided he wanted to come to Texas, he said he simply "Googled" his way to information about Obama's Austin campaign office. Obama's online volunteer information is "really well-organized," he said.
An Obama volunteer contacted Talbot shortly after his search for information, encouraging him to come to Austin. Since he's been here, Talbot has enjoyed the benefits of a state that is famous for hospitality.
"Another volunteer provided a place for me to stay in their home," he said. "And, so far, I haven't had to purchase a single meal."
"Texas hospitality is fantastic," Talbot continued. "I came into the campaign office last night and there was all this great food in the kitchen! It was all brought in by a volunteer."
Talbot also said the campaign office had no shortage of food another night after a woman from Wisconsin contacted the volunteers.
"She called and asked, 'Are you hungry?'" he explained. "A little while later, 30 pizzas were delivered to the office from a local pizza place."
James Vicente, an assistant district attorney from Brooklyn and Obama volunteer, heard Talbot's story and mentioned that he had seen the idea to send food to campaign volunteers on the liberal blog site Daily Kos.
"Someone on Daily Kos asked, 'How can I help?'" Vicente said. "Someone else wrote about sending food to volunteers in other states."
Vicente is another volunteer who flew to Texas just to be a part of the volunteer effort. "It was in my head that I should come down, and a friend said, 'Do you want to go to Texas?'" he explained.
Both Vicente and Talbot helped organize a party to celebrate the end of early voting at the historic Victory Grill in Austin on Friday night, Feb. 29.
Another Obama supporter, 24-year-old Luca Barton of Los Angeles, was also at the Victory Grill, selling Obama t-shirts of his own design. Not long ago, Barton was a self-described "apathetic and unmotivated" person who slept until the late afternoon in L.A. Now, he is employed by the Obama campaign as a graphic designer and Texas state intern coordinator.
Barton's journey to Texas started when he decided to volunteer for the campaign after attending a Democratic debate in L.A.
Barton said he became "24/7 Obama" after canvassing in Culver City, Calif., before Super Tuesday. He immediately got online to learn more about Obama's campaign.
The information Barton learned from Obama's Web site only made him more enthusiastic to help out. He continued to volunteer by making phone calls to voters and helping at events, like a UCLA rally in which big names like Oprah Winfrey and Caroline Kennedy spoke in support of Obama.
Williams invited Barton out to Texas to help open the University of Texas campaign headquarters and, just a week ago, he became a paid campaign member after receiving a $500 stipend.
He now focuses his energies on selling the t-shirts he designed and helping out at the University of Texas campaign office.
The office is thriving due to UT students' overwhelming enthusiasm for Obama. Brandon Chicotsky, a former president of University Democrats who helped open the office, said the Internet and online networking sites have been important tools in helping cultivate that enthusiasm.
"Facebook has been an outstanding tool for informing, organizing, and motivating voters in my student constituency," Chicotsky said. "Every student is largely logged onto Facebook, or a similar online networking system, every day. This allows us to be in constant communication by varied means.
"Considering presidential political organizing, I have the upper hand in fast-paced information feeds, event planning, community outreach, volunteer organizing, and motivating voters," he continued. "Also, it's a ton of fun to apply creative ingenuity working online, which reaches thousands of people in seconds, while never leaving my chair."
The simplicity and fast pace of networking sites like Facebook may help explain why young voters are volunteering and participating more in this election than ever before.
For example, a UT student who is interested in the Obama campaign can, with one click, join the 1,005-member "UT Students for Obama!" Facebook group and find information explaining Texas's primary/caucus system, locate his polling and caucus locations, learn about volunteer opportunities at the campaign office, and regularly receive messages from Chicotsky and other office leaders about recent news and upcoming events.
"The youngest generation of voters are all information babies," Chicotsky said. "We've developed this online world into a personalized and customized system of communication devices. This has benefited myself and fellow Obama organizers tremendously."
Chicotsky theorized that young people and Obama supporters are more inclined to use the Internet and networking sites to organize and inform voters, which will prove to be even more valuable if Obama wins the Democratic nomination.
He explained, "Every time I utilize Facebook or another online networking system to advertise an event or organize supporters, I get an enormous advantage over those who don't. The generational divide between the two prospective nominees, which I believe to be McCain and Obama, will create an insurmountable advantage for Obama."