President Barack Obama’s Wednesday afternoon visit
to Facebook
, the grandfather of the social networking biz, showed that his
team has grasped political truism that has eluded many California campaigns:
Bucks ain’t ballots.

Now it’s true the president reportedly plans to raise a
breathtaking $1 billion for his effort to win four more years in the White
House and yes, that’s billion with a "b."

And since no one in the campaign business has ever suggested
that "Big Daddy" Jesse Unruh’s observation that "money is the mother’s milk of
politics" is any less valid now than when the former Assembly speaker made it
in 1966, the $35,800-a-napkin dinner he had with 60 of his closest friends
Wednesday night in San Francisco was a pleasant reminder of why it’s good to be
the president.

But as Meg Whitman ($178 million for her governor’s race)
and PG&E ($46 million for last June’s Prop. 16) discovered, all the cash in
the world won’t help a campaign that can’t rally the troops. Which is why the
Facebook stop was likely the most important event on a presidential trip this
week that’s expected to shake the California money tree for $7 million in

There weren’t any surprises in what the president said: the
GOP budget plan is "fairly radical," the country’s "been through tougher times
before" and gee, isn’t it great that all the young people who use Facebook want
to get on-board my campaign and vote for me in 2012.

Well, maybe he didn’t say the last part in so many words,
but the picture of Obama standing next to 26-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, the
site’s founder and CEO, and taking questions from some of the more than 40,000
Facebook users who signed up for the on-line forum, is something that no amount
of fundraising can buy.

For Obama’s people, it’s Politics 101. In 2008, a record
number of young and first-time voters showed up at the polls and the Chicago
senator won a historic victory. In 2010, when Obama wasn’t on the ballot, those
same voters stayed home and Democrats were trounced across the country, present
state excluded.

If those "casual" voters show up for Obama 18 months from
now, it’s "Hail to the Chief" all over again. If they don’t, well let’s say
Democratic strategists don’t want to go there.

So even though the 2012 election is more than a
year-and-a-half away, it’s time for the Democrats to start revving up the
troops. But when it comes to young voters, Team Obama has to first find them
before they can connect with them.

So the president does a high-profile event at Facebook,
hoping to reach an audience that a CNN interview, Newsweek cover or a New York
Times feature story will never catch. And it’s a guarantee that social media
sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flikr and Digg will be playing a much
more visible role as Democrats and Republicans try desperately to attract
voters who actually know what those sites are.

Again, no one’s saying the money doesn’t matter in politics,
but the typical locked-in, blinkers-on focus on raising those dollars can miss
the point of why you’re running the campaign in the first place.

At a Monday night Commonwealth
Club panel
on the future of political reform in California (Full disclosure:
I was moderator of the San Francisco event), Lenny Mendonca, a member of the
Leadership Council for California Forward, was lamenting the failure of the
proposed constitutional convention to make the state ballot last year.

Groups backing the reform effort ran out of money before
they could even make a serious effort to gather the signatures needed for the
initiative campaign.

Any new effort to put that convention vote on the ballot
should start with building grassroots excitement and support for the plan
before worrying about raising the money for the campaign, said Mendonca.

"If you can find a million supporters, then everyone can get
just one friend, sign the petitions and you’re on the ballot."

That’s way easier said than done, but it’s a point that
matters: supporters first, money second. Because, as Obama and his political
team realize, without the one, the other doesn’t much matter.

John Wildermuth is a
longtime writer on California politics.