Obama’s 2008 Victory Fueled by America 2.0 – Campaign as Platform

2 Nov

In examining the impact of social media and the internet on presidential campaigns we have been taking a close look at Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election.  One way to view the campaign rather than in retrospect is to examine campaign coverage from just a month prior to the 2008 national election in a piece  by Zachery  Exley in the Huffington Post, “Inside the Obama campaign – What’s really behind Obama’s Ground Game”.   Exley provides a detailed summary that describes how the Obama campaign became a well-run political movement that both honored and harnessed the energy and dynamism of grass roots activism not seen since the 1960’s.   Indeed Harvard Kennedy School Professor, and noted 1960 Civil Rights Activist, Marshall Ganz who was a key advisor to the Obama 2008 ground game was quoted as saying he’s been waiting for 40 years to see something like this.

Making a perfect bookend to this real-time analysis is a case study, Barack Obama, organizing for America 2.0 by Piskorski and Winig.  This piece analyzes the online strategy and historic campaign that catapulted Obama from a relative underdog into a national movement, and finally into the White House.    Reading Exley’s take on the ground game is critical to proving context to the online strategy.  Though not really focused on in Exley’s piece, the grass roots ground game was fueled by modern communication tools that empowered the grass roots movement to quickly scale a brilliantly conceived local-centric, but centrally directed ground game model as though it were an established, well-heeled, highly disciplined franchise.  The campaign employed a high-risk and novel strategy to invest heavily in recruiting and training volunteers, not just to make phone calls and knock on doors but to actually manage local campaign drives.   This was an extremely effective, though unproven, strategy for a national campaign in 2008.  Yet, the mix of a highly motivated and socially connected demographic, savvy use of ubiquitous technology tools, and a well-disciplined core of organizers proved a powerful combination enabling the campaign to reach out and leverage volunteers (soon to be activists)  with unprecedented effectiveness.

Exley’s take is based on spending several days embedded with the campaign in southern Ohio in October 2008.   The campaign’s approach to setting up its state by state ground strategy for the primary campaign leveraged the Obama camp’s community activist experience.   In talking to one volunteer who had experience in doing volunteer work on many campaigns noted the difference with Obama’s strategy:   “on the Obama campaign, when I see people like me and my friends used to be, we turn them around and say, ‘Well hey, here’s how to be a community organizer. Let me help you be a community organizer.’ And then they go out and they get people to be their coordinators. And then we tell those new coordinators, ‘Build yourself a team and be organizers too.’ There’s no end to it.”  This story of empowerment is not unique, it is repeated in local Obama campaign HQ’s across Ohio and every state where the campaign fought in the primaries.

Those who demonstrated leadership qualities were screened by paid staff but then were extensively trained, and empowered with more responsibility.  In Obama, organizing for America 2.0 by Piskorski and Winig provide great detail on how social media was not only utilized to recruit volunteers, but even more importantly technology was used very effectively for the paid campaign staff to manage and grow multiple geographically spread local team leaders, and to allow the newly recruited volunteers to communicate and inspire each other.  Charlie Hughes, Facebook Co-Founder is credited with wisely employing technology, (the MyBO – My Barack Obama website) to both empower local organizers and also to keep the chaos controlled so that the field operations were operating and communicating in a consistent and effective way.    Hughes’ strategy was not just about digital activism but about being a data driven campaign.   A large part of the success of the Obama’s team was deploying the army of volunteers to both gather and capture data about the local voting demographics, then to use that data to astutely deploy his field operations such as in their Neighbor to Neighbor phone campaign.

Depending on unpaid volunteers to manage critical components of a presidential campaign’s ground strategy was unprecedented.  At least it had never been done successfully.  The Dean Campaign of 2004 pioneered sophisticated online strategies to leverage younger demographics to raise funds and create a national campaign but they were not able to bridge the online zeal with sustainable offline activism in the way the Obama campaign was able to.  The ability of Charlie Hughes and the Obama campaign to transform the online recruiting and fundraising into effective offline field operations, state by state was the catalyst and the engine behind the success of Obama’s field campaign.   The suddenness and acceleration of the campaign, from newcomer to frontrunner took the political establishment by surprise, enabling the underdog to topple the established party front runner Hillary Clinton by creating a virtual political movement.

In fact the title of the Pinorski and Winnig article, ‘organizing for America 2.0’ is an apt name, particularly when viewed in combination with the Exleys piece.  The Obama campaign truly leveraged the concept of ‘web 2.0’ but not as web as platform but as ‘campaign as platform’.   When contrasted with Clinton’s online and offline strategy, Obama’s campaign and field operations strategy was truly more of a’ 2.0’ approach.   Obama’s websites were more interactive, engaging volunteers to become involved and contributors to the effort.   Critically, the strategy transcended the internet.  The campaign itself adopted the ethos of web 2.0, empowering their volunteers and fueling the growth of the grass roots campaign.  Here’s what I mean:

Web 2.0 Architecture is one of participation – The campaign didn’t just want volunteers knocking on doors, it leveraged experienced campaigners to fully participate by becoming local leaders adding real value to the effort.

Web 2.0 mandates loosely joined architecture.  The campaign emboldened and transfromed volunteers into thousands of local leaders to act on their own; Holding house parties, managing fundraising, persuading, and get out the vote efforts using MyBO and other technology tools.  This mirrors web 2.0’s decentralized approach of using the wisdom of crowds to add value, while maintaining consistency with a simple but not too a rigid structure as to disempower the local leaders.

Cost effective scalability.  Like Web 2.0, critical to the success of the strategy was their ability to scale. Plouffe, Obama’s chief campaign manager is quoted “Everywhere we went, we could plug in a zip code and a list of really excited volunteers would pop up…Indiana, North Caroline…we would not have won those states without the grass roots.

Obama’s 2008 campaign empowered and trusted people to do the right thing locally.  The 5 pillars of Wikipedia, Web 2.0’s poster child, are not unlike, in spirit, to the Obama’s field campaign motto of Respect. Empower. Include.   Like Wikipedia, the campaign’s simple but disciplined top down messaging combined with an empowered and motivated public created a powerful and winning formula.

 NOTE:   Below I have clipped two comments out of hundreds that were made online to Hexley’s Huffington Post article.  These comments were made in October 2008 and are illustrative of the points made above.   The first one is typical of the hundreds of comments by campaign volunteers.

1.      “This is just awesome. To think McCain’s camp keeps saying Obama has never run anything. LOL Have they got a surprise in store!”

The second comment below I thought was illustrative of the ‘Campaign as platform’ concept and indicates the challenge and risk with turning over so much power to tech savvy demographic not always willing to yield to a centrally run power.  This comment reminds me of the challenges Wikipedia grappled with during its growing years and in many ways still is.   This comment also illuminates the paradoxes facing many institutions, such as State and Local Government.  Government is in many cases actively promoting technology to improve transparency and to foster greater engagement with citizens.  Yet, as we have seen, to derive real value from online public participation requires empowering citizens and granting a level of authority over their mission and domain that most government institutions are not traditionally comfortable with, in spite of the great value that could be achieved.


2.       “They should move it heavily online, like a wiki of needs in an area crafted by the residents, and plans for getting things done quick and efficiently.     It sounds cool, the flexibility is great. I’m not hot on the idea of a President having an active “army” of supporters – its better if the communities direct the efforts themselves, than by looking upwards to some degree for direction. This happened b/c people wanted to do something together, not especially b/c they wanted to do it for Obama. He talked about it being “your campaign” early on – it should just be that afterwards. He made some wiggle room for the opportunity to take root. He should consider it a gift and walk away from it after the election, let it take its own shape.”

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