Sunday, November 2, 2008

How Obama Will Do It

– Guest post by Denis Campbell of

If you think this campaign was about tons of money for slick television advertising, 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

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 such as Rick Davis and Mark Penn, architect of Hillary’s “3AM ad” who stilled is owed $7-million 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 volunteers and field staff do their thing as opposed to issuing HQ fiats and edicts and deflating their enthusiasm.

The election was always about them.

2. Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers

In a traditional campaign, you follow a prescribed timetable and calendar which breaks at different times over your opponent. Well, there never was a sacred cow in the Obama campaign. They went against conventional wisdom at every turn: Obama never got the memo.

As a result, his campaign made sure everyone knew this was not the 1992, ’96, ’00 or ’04 election. 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.

The problem was the Democratic Party, a group that had won only three Presidential elections in the last 40 years. Democratic voters are like Rolling Stones fans. They are so busy getting ready for the 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 kept them disciplined. He warned of complacency until the last poll closed, 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 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 über statistical firm and website

The gold of 538 is it represents the number of electoral votes up for grabs; the first to obtain 270 state-by-state is the winner. All states except Nebraska and Maine are winner take all contests with Nebraska and Maine apportioning electoral votes by Congressional district.

If you followed the daily tracking polls as a barometer of what was happening, you got only 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 gets it right more often 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; this was why they had an 18-state battleground strategy which included many red states.

4. Obama’s 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 this is 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.

The OGG was registering voters methodically and consistently all throughout the summer and on into September. Using sophisticated data-tracking tools such as Geographic Information Systems, used by Bill Gates’ foundation to target areas of greatest need for food and vaccinations, Obama’s field offices and millions of volunteers kept reaching out to the newly registered. Indiana, a traditional Republican red state had four million registered voters in the 2004 election; the OGG machine registered 400,000 new Democrats this time around. Pennsylvania had five million voters in 2004; the OGG registered 500,000 new Democrats.

Up and down the battleground state map, new voters and volunteers for change was the order of the day.

5. Money, Money, Money

By enthusing the base and reaching out to people who never before voted, the Obama campaign generated $650-million dollars or $86 per person. More importantly, he brought 3.2-million people onboard via his website.

His standard “ask” was $5 or $10 per person, knowing that once he motivated you to contribute 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 $2 rolls of dime coins for President Roosevelt; it later became the “The March of Dimes.” Everyone could empty their pocket. Folks thought this a mad way to raise campaign cash – until it worked and raised more than ever before.

6. Play The Game On The Other Guy’s Half Of The Field

Obama’s campaign forced McCain to defend and protect his turf against Obama’s overwhelming push. 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 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 which, normally, is very Republican and North Dakota, a state George Bush won by 27 points in 2004. Obama said from the beginning he wanted to end partisan Red vs. Blue politics and build a center from where the best ideas could be grown and implemented.

7. The Internet Is Not A Series Of Tubes

Soon-to-be former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens 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 there was a wealth of Internet tools to use, making it possible to 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 talking points. 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.

They also used their social networking tools from sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to collect friends and surrogates all working for one thing. Through data mining, they also helped individuals 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 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.

By the way, she is still waiting for her first McCain phone call.

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

* * * * *

This is a generational change and 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 at the back fence. David Plouffe and Barack Obama have revolutionized the way political organizing is done.

Obama knew he had to shatter the red state-blue state paradigm and expand the base; otherwise he could not govern and lead.

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 this is what will win it. It also helped that people really understood the consequences of the Bush years and despite a $10-trillion deficit, there was absolutely nothing to show for it.

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King’s proclaimed, “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 almost there yet there is much work to do.

Denis Campbell is editor-in-chief of

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