How Obama Did It: What All Political Parties and Businesses Must Learn Before 2010

david-plouffe.gifIf you think this campaign was about tons of money for slick television adverts, you’re wrong. The money helped Obama take his message into additional ‘red’ states, but this election was about getting to know the voter (the customer, if you will) and giving them a voice and a say. Yes, Obama built a classic door-to-door retail unprecedented political machine, but he made the election about us. No-drama Obama is only part of the story. The wizard behind the curtains is soft-spoken and determined David Plouffe, 41, Obama’s campaign manager.

Said strategist David Axelrod, “… David Plouffe has done the most magnificent job of managing a campaign that I’ve seen in my life of watching presidential politics. To start something like this from scratch and build what we have built was a truly remarkable thing.”

These are the seven deadly virtues of Obama-Plouffe and the decidedly disciplined and unsexy way in which they did it:

1. The Pharaoh’s Already Dead…
… so invert the pyramid. In this election, ground-level organizing and excitement trumped traditional thinking. Plouffe turned the organization upside down and decentralized EVERYTHING. He put the campaign in the hands of incredibly loyal, door-to-door, face-to-face organizers in the highest of high-touch ways. Half of the campaign money raised went to community organizing and was indeed a triumph of average voters over high powered lobbyist political machines.

The Clinton and McCain campaigns brought in “the usual suspects” and relied on models from the last three elections. They wheeled out 90’s era lobbyists and strategists from past campaigns. (Mark Penn, architect of Hillary’s “3 a.m. ad” is stilled owed $7 million dollars by the campaign). This is how campaigns are run. McCain was in Alexandria, Virginia next to Washington, they could all be important, lunch at The Palm (on the campaign’s nickel), opine on national TV, sit together in high level HQ meetings, dictate strategy and, as we saw, in-fight and destroy the campaign from the inside-out.

Obama put his top people and surrogates out in the field. Now with 4,000 paid staffers and millions of volunteers, I got calls from US phone banks here in the UK despite having voted six weeks ago via absentee ballot. Plouffe had the good sense to give them more than they could possibly use or need, get out of the way, and then let the volunteers and field staff do their thing vs. issuing HQ fiats and edicts and deflating their enthusiasm. The election was always about them.

2. Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers – Excite
In a traditional campaign, you follow a prescribed timetable and calendar, which breaks at different times over your opponent. Well, there was never a sacred cow in the Obama campaign. They went against conventional wisdom at every turn. Obama never got the memo and made sure everyone knew this was not the 1992, ’96, ’00 or ’04 campaign. This was to be the first YouTube, Facebook, Blogger, MySpace, Twitter election. The Internet was where it would be won or lost. So he set out to:

  • attract and excite those who had never voted,
  • energize young people on college campuses and
  • lure back those who felt so disenfranchised by the seeming theft of the last two elections that they’d given up.

plouffe.gifThe problem was the Democratic Party, a group that had won only three Presidential elections in the last 40 years. Our voters are like Rolling Stones fans. They are so busy getting ready for the big party/concert they forget to vote. I’ve loved the Stones for decades, been to most of the concerts and… I’ve never purchased an album. Point made?

Obama got them enthused and disciplined. He warned until the last poll closed of complacency, even producing a brilliant ad showing a guy celebrating and falling off his bike before crossing the finish line, crashing because he took his hands off the handlebars and the second-place rider (with a McCain paste-on face) passing him at the line. Obama and his team always warned of celebrating too early despite the encouraging news.

Obama spoke to enormous rallies (concerts?) and got them to vote by using his relentless follow-up machine.

3. Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics
Pollsters can ask any question in any way to get the result they want. What they did not count on was the wonkish Nate Silver, head of the über statistical firm and website www.fivethirtyeight.com. 538 represents the number of electoral votes up for grabs in this year’s election, thus the first to obtain 270 votes state-by-state is the winner. All states except Nebraska and Maine are winner take all contests (NE and ME apportion their electoral votes by who carries each Congressional district).

If you followed the daily tracking polls as a barometer of what was happening, you only had half the story because those pollsters did not factor in new voters, those brought back by Obama or cell phone only households (15% of the US ). The “Likely Voter Model” was based on those who had voted in the last two Presidential elections.

Silver grew up following baseball stats, so he developed mathematical formulae and algorithms based on all factors before issuing his polls and predictions. As expected, he got it more right than the vaunted television network news desks and traditional pollsters such as Gallup, Zogby and Rasmussen. Team Obama knew this and their internals always showed a strong advantage and this was why they had an 18-state swing/battleground state strategy which included many red states.

4. The Obama Ground Game
There was an 80%+ total turnout, the largest since 1960 and one third of the vote was cast in the weeks before Election Day. The subplot to all of this was the enormous registration effort in key battleground states. This is referred to as Obama’s Ground Game (OGG). While the Republicans, Sarah Palin in particular, joked about “what is it a community organizer does?”, they got schooled and gamed.

oakland_obama.jpgThe OGG was registering voters methodically and consistently all throughout the summer and on into September. Using sophisticated data-tracking tools such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems, used by Bill Gates’ foundation to target areas of greatest need for food and vaccinations) Indiana, a traditional Republican red state had 4 million registered voters in the ’04 election. The OGG machine registered 400,000 new Democrats (10%) for this election. Pennsylvania had 5 million voters in ’04. The OGG registered 500,000 new Democrats (12.5%). Up and down the battleground state map, new voters and volunteers for Change, were the order of the day.

5. Money, Money, Money
By enthusing the base AND reaching out to people who have never before voted, the Obama campaign generated $650 million dollars (almost $400 million pounds) or $86 (£52) per person. More importantly, he brought 3.2 million people onboard via his website.

His standard ‘ask’ was $5 or $10 per person (the cost of 2-3 pints of lager in a pub). He knew that once he motivated you to contribute such a small amount, do something you had likely not previously done, the battle was won. He could e-mail and have your neighbors call you. You were more likely to listen to your neighbor than a candidate or a pundit.

Polio was defeated by raising President Roosevelt’s $2 rolls of dime coins, indeed it later became the charity, “The March of Dimes”. Everyone could empty their pocket that way. Folks thought this a mad way to raise campaign cash… until it worked and raised more than ever before.

6. Play the Game in the Other Guy’s Half of the Field
Force him to defend and protect his turf against your overwhelming ‘push’. Try and hope for a mistake is how McCain had to play this election game. Make him play defense all of the time.

McCain had quite a bit of money left over, yet played the game throughout the month of October in his own end of the field and was forced to spend money defending even his home state of Arizona(!), Georgia (a deep South normally very Republican red state), and North Dakota, a state George Bush won by 27 points in ’04. Obama said from the beginning he wanted to end partisan Red vs. Blue politics for good and build a center from where the best ideas could be grown and implemented.

7. The Internet is not “Just a Series of Tubes” Senator
Soon-to-be former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens now convict once called the internet “a series of tubes.” The Obama Internet was a fund raising, organizing and data mining juggernaut.

  • Fund Raising: Team Obama picked up where Howard Dean left off. The DNC Chair raised $6 million dollars over the Internet for his 2000 presidential primary election campaign. Everyone wanted to know how to do that. Last month Obama shattered the record he himself had set the previous month ($150 million dollars raised in September vs. $66 million in August) and long after this election ends we will learn he raised another $100 million dollars or so for October and the first three days of November. That’s ¾ of a billion dollars or more raised for one candidate.
  • Organizing: If you registered at www.barackobama.com there was a wealth of Internet tools for you to use. You could download everything from position papers to brochures and desktop wallpaper. You could find hints on how to organize debate watching parties, find other supporters in your area and suggested (but not required) talking points for you to use. You knew where phone banks would be held and could even organize car pools to help elderly or handicapped voters get to the polls online. You could also report attempts at voter suppression by the other side and other bad actors. You had access to the campaign and they treated you as the real reason for the campaign.
  • Data Mining: The real gold for the campaign was mining and manipulating the real-time databases behind the website that made their data mining effort unprecedented. They used a variety of tools to reach out and ask for help because they knew where and how to find you.

Too, they used their social networking tools from sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to collect friends and surrogates all working for one thing. They also helped you, through data mining, find like-minded people around the globe. The breadth of their technological reach was breathtaking and it grew and merged over time into an unstoppable juggernaut.

I live in the UK and registered at my mother’s address in the USA . With two clicks of my mouse, I knew of every like-minded person in my neighborhood, county, state and region. I found out where debate-watching house parties were to be held and how door-to-door campaigning efforts were organized. I knew of union and private phone banking efforts every day for the last five months and could join in if I so chose or… someone called me to make sure I was invited. My mother took 17 calls (sorry, Ma) by different volunteers saying thanks for the support and if she or I had any questions. Even she was impressed and… she is still waiting for her first McCain phone call.

That is high touch customer embracing action and once you commit to it, you literally become the Biblical mustard seed that moves a mountain.

* * * * *

This was a generational change/wave election. As revolutionary as it was, it never lost site of the fact that we needed to first connect with and learn from each other before casting our vote.

Obama made it easier and acceptable again for us to talk with each other over a cup of coffee by the back fence. David Plouffe and Barack Obama have revolutionized the way political organizing is done and the same can be done in this country (the UK).

Obama knew he had to shatter the red state vs. blue state paradigm and expand the base otherwise he could not govern and lead. The day either a Tory or Labour leader gets this fundamentally in their DNA coding is when and how change will really occur in UK politics.

Obama brought confidence, change and hope as his message. Everyone worked hard and pulled together in the same direction. No one ever took anything for granted, especially based on the past and that is what won it. It also helped that people really understood the consequences of the Bush years and despite a ten trillion dollar deficit, there was absolutely nothing to show for it.

denis-campbell-2.gif40 years after The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech:

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

We are there and there is much work yet to do.

Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist based in the United Kingdom. He contributes to newspapers and magazines, is a BBC Radio election commentator and publishes the daily e-magazine The Vadimus Post from the Latin Quo Vadimus – where are we headed and do we know why?

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Published by the LA Progressive on November 2, 2008
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About Denis Campbell

Denis Campbell is a US journalist and entrepreneur based in the United Kingdom . He is Editor-in-Chief of UKProgressive.co.uk, a frequent BBC political and business contributor, writes for publications around the globe and is a partner in Target Point Ltd a business innovation consultancy bringing examples of the best practices from the recent campaign to businesses and campaigns.