What were you doing, personally and professionally, at the time the Obama campaign started?
Senator Obama announced his candidacy in January, 2007, after several months of a public movement forming around him. I had turned 36 a few weeks earlier, and was in the job market, in the middle of a prolonged period of unemployment following graduate school.
Keep in mind, this was 18 months, 45 lost pounds, a job interview process, a stint on a new job, being fired from that job, and another period of under-employment before I actually got involved in the campaign.
Why did you support Obama?
Well, it’s important to note that, at the time of his entry into the race, I actually did not support Obama. Like everyone else, I was intrigued by his intellect and oratorical skills and what he represented as a “change” candidate, but I was resolved not to make up my mind until after a few debates. At this stage, all I knew was that the challenges facing the country were formidable.
I agreed with the mainstream that this was a “change” election and was uncomfortable with the idea of the Clinton team returning to the White House. With the era of hyper-partisanship that took hold with the Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the ‘90s, the thought of that kind of a soap opera in Washington during a less tranquil and prosperous time made me nervous. (What I underestimated, in hindsight, was how Obama would not be able to sidestep that, himself.)
Describe your progression from passive supporter to active supporter. What made you want to get more active? What influence did the campaign have on the process as opposed to just your own personal motivation? Did anyone from the campaign reach out to you? Did a friend join up and convince you to do so? How was the campaign able to speak to you on a personal level and appeal to your personal motivations?
No, [a friend did not ask me to join up] although I do have friends who canvassed & phonebanked.
I would say that I was more influenced by the overall Presidential campaign story and what the crucible of a national campaign reveals about the respective candidates than I was by the strategy and operations of the Obama campaign. However, the strategy and structure devised by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe made it exceptionally easy for me to get involved.
My own road to political activism originated on 9/11, when I began to have to a genuine intellectual curiosity about just why that happened. Always an avid reader, I shifted my mix from 90% fiction to probably 65% nonfiction, reading about politics and history, making the news magazines and New York Times part of my weekly routine, as well as becoming a loyal viewer of Meet The Press. I had always considered myself to be a staunch social liberal and equally staunch fiscal conservative up until this point, although my interest in politics and public policy was limited during my 20’s – which were also an era of economic prosperity with an absence of foreign policy issues. I was simply more interested in sports, socializing, and establishing my career and was not especially interested in world events. That all changed on 9/11.
When I went back to graduate school and had a number of years of business under my belt, my views on policy began to crystallize, and I began to find I was much more of a moderate liberal, socially, and a dead-centrist, fiscally. I also came to have a strong belief in the importance of energy policy, in that energy has its hooks into the economy, the environment, foreign policy and even education. The Republican mantra of “Drill, Baby, Drill” was one moment that pushed me closer to getting involved as it was not only utterly myopic, intellectually vacant, and disastrously wrongheaded, but was also the public manifestation of the GOP’s responsiveness to the oil interests that had helped fund so many of its candidates’ campaigns for years and helped put George W. Bush in office.
Meanwhile, I began to have a defined notion of what I expected from elected officials, and the incompetence of the Bush years focused my attention on the importance of a powerful and active intellect to holders of high government office. This, as much as anything, led to my intrigue with Obama and, to a lesser extent, Clinton… and this belief was a driving force in my utter certainty that –- issues aside — John McCain was simply not up to the job.
I had settled on Obama over Biden and Clinton late in 2007, a few months before the Iowa caucuses, because I was uncomfortable with Clinton’s evasiveness in debates and her tendency to over-reach on selling her admittedly strong resume. Her outright lie on dodging sniper fire with her daughter in Bosnia and her stretching of the truth on her role in the Northern Ireland peace process were nonstarters for me, while I was immensely impressed with how Obama grew into displaying a Presidential level of gravitas. A national campaign is the largest organization most people will ever run as an executive, and how you run your campaign is predictive of how you’ll perform in office. Obama was displaying that he knew how to build a team and lead a gigantic organization -– a skill set with which the Clinton (surprisingly) and McCain (less surprisingly) were struggling.
When McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate and the polls narrowed rapidly, that was the last straw for me. Palin was an extremist whose views fell well outside the mainstream of American thought, and it amazed and infuriated me that someone whose resume included merely a stint as mayor of a town of less than 10,000, two years as governor of our least populous state, and five passes to get through three colleges, who the McCain campaign would not even submit to the public vetting of the Sunday morning shows or even campaigning on her own without McCain… would be placed one heartbeat away from the Presidency.
This was especially troubling give that the beating heart in question was inside a septuagenarian cancer survivor who had endured years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton and would have moved into the White House with the highest actuarial probability of not surviving his term in office of any President outside of polio-inflicted Franklin Roosevelt. It was irresponsible, and the crassly political nature of the choice ran contrary to McCain’s “Country First” slogan. In fact, the choice of Palin was one of the expressed reasons that the Chicago Tribune -– a publication whose founder, Jospeh Medill, was also one of the founders of the Republican Party and had never once endorsed a Democrat -– endorsed Obama.
When the polls drew even following the Republican convention, I decided that if McCain won the election, I would have no right to complain if I did not stand up and get in the game.
Now, as David Plouffe wrote in his recently published inside story of the campaign, The Audacity to Win, the Obama campaign was far less concerned about Palin and the state of the national polls than I was. Their exceptional ground game, with field organizations in virtually every state, gave them a much more accurate read on the state of the race than the relatively superficial national polls Additionally, they had considered the possibility of a McCain “Hail Mary” in the form of Palin, and despite acknowledging her political savvy, they knew what the rest of the country was soon to learn about Palin: as Jon Stewart said, when you peel back the skin of the onion… there’s no onion!
In fact, Plouffe and David Axelrod and the rest of the Obama team relished the tangible effects of the Palin choice — it led to dramatic increases in fundraising and volunteers… one of whom was me.
The Plouffe strategy was built upon the idea of the first true grassroots campaign, using the community organizing philosophies of the candidate, himself, and the social networking utility of MyBarackObama.com –- a website designed by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes — which connected volunteers with each other in a more advanced incarnation of how Howard Dean had used Meetup.com in 2004.
To that end, the campaign cultivated a massive e-mail list who received regular communications, be it from Plouffe, Axelrod, other campaign officials, key endorsers, or Obama himself. This led to a large number of small donors who gave small sums over and over again, rather than a smaller number of big money donors who maxed out their limit of a few thousand dollars. This e-mail list also served to bring in an army volunteers.
Communication with members of the site and e-mail list ranged from notification of events, straight solicitation of donations, campaign news, updates on the race, even video strategy briefs from Plouffe straight from his office. This level of communication brought casual and active supporters into the circulatory system of the campaign and cultivated a high level of investment.
The constant communication gave the campaign a chance to test different messaging on a daily basis. Whether you were a policy wonk, inspired by change, anti-Bush, a fierce Democratic partisan, deeply concerned by the selection of Sarah Palin, or simply interested in getting involved in a political campaign as a learning experience, you could count on a communique from the campaign. And you felt as though the campaign was talking to you, personally.
The daily e-mails in your inbox could be immediately categorized by the sender. If it was political “inside baseball”, it tended to come from Plouffe. If it was an e-mail on the big picture, it came from John Kerry. If it was an e-mail encouraging you to get involved, it tended to come from Jon Carson. After the convention you would get e-mails from Joe Biden… and in fact, if you are still in the e-mail list, you still, unsurprisingly, hear from Joe Biden. I think there may have even been e-mails from Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton after they got on board. It was clever, but paying attention to this small detail — letting you see these names in your inbox alongside your friends or business associates — brought even passive supporters into the organization and helped motivate recipients to give their money or time. Obviously, this effort was gigantically, historically successful.
It is remarkable to me, after the online organizational and fundraising success that made Howard Dean a viable candidate in the latter stages of 2003, that the Clinton campaign did not identify technology and online messaging as a central front in the campaign war. While the Obama team devised a sound strategy to reach young voters and expand the electorate (the market, if you will), and they executed their strategy brilliantly, the notion was neither groundbreaking nor especially inspired. To me, it was campaign malpractice of the highest order that the Clinton team simply felt that after 8 years of George W. Bush, the Clintons could simply show up and ride a wave in inevitability back to the White House.
It was almost comical that only after the primaries were underway and Hillary was backed against a wall both in delegates and money did she begin to work into her speeches, “Go online to w…w…w…dot…Hillary… Clinton… dot…com” to ask for donations. The web was not some newfangled technology in 2008, using it as a tool for fundraising was not novel in political campaigns, and even using the passe “www” revealed her as a stodgy player in a contest about change. That she had missed the boat, strategically, and was so far behind the bleeding edge said a great deal about her fitness for the Presidency.
When I finally decided to get involved, I had received an e-mail about “Camp Obama” –- the orientation for Deputy Field Organizers who would be sent into battleground states in a role akin to replacement officers in a war. The paid staff on the ground in these states were bedraggled and had been at this for months, their sleeves rolled up, fighting out the campaign on the ground. The timing of this request came as the polls were tightening and many supporters were concerned, as I was.
Applying to be a DFO involved an application process not unlike one for a real job, which brought in a more skilled workforce and made you feel like you were getting involved on a deeper level than the rank-and-file. When I arrived in Detroit, I found that the profile of new DFO was: highly educated (some, like me, had advanced degrees, and most all had bachelor’s degrees), covering a wide age range from early 20’s to mid 50’s, and for the most part unemployed or underemployed – people who wanted to use this time to make an impact.
Describe Camp Obama. What tools did they equip you with to help spread the word? Describe your experience on the ground in Michigan. How much information did the campaign have at its disposal about each resident of each neighborhood? How was it gathered? Stored? Used? How did you stay tied to the rest of the organization? Were your efforts in Michigan successful?
While Camp Obama as billed as a boot camp, basic training, to prepare you to go out into the field, its form was really more of an orientation designed to give you a cursory introduction to what you’d be doing, and to weed out those who weren’t truly prepared to go “all in” on the endeavor.
There was really only an hour or two of real training in the program, introducing you to the basics of organizing a phone bank or a canvass. The real training occurred once I arrived at Obama’s state headquarters in Detroit for my first week in Michigan, where I found myself with about 15 other DFO’s, mostly from Chicago. We were given DFO manuals, which served as a nice reference as we got our feet wet: instructions on how to use some of the database systems, processes for organizing canvasses and phonebanks, guidelines for messaging on the phone and in the field, sample scripts, and a digest of the candidate’s policy positions.
My first two days in Detroit were consumed with hitting the streets to register voters in Detroit, as these were the last days for voter registration. The next two days were spent largely on the phone, recruiting lawyers across the state for voter protection – getting them to training sessions and assigned precincts. The objective here was to make sure that anyone who was being denied a chance to vote could have a lawyer on site within 30 minutes. After what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, the campaign was deeply concerned about Republican dirty tricks and wanted to make sure there were no abnormalities. (This turned out to be not much of a problem.)
We were taught to use the DNC Votebuilder database so we could do data entry on our volunteer recruitment and information gathering surveys. A couple of the nights, we worked quite late. Actor Forrest Whitaker paid us a visit. We all watched the second debate together – the town hall format in which McCain managed to go the entire night without a mention of the middle class.
The level of bonding on our team was surprisingly deep. While we each spent six weeks in field offices, our group of DFO’s that worked together in Detroit for that first week remains closely connected over a year later. If you’ll permit me to play amateur psychologist here for a moment, I would surmise that this was a low-grade form of the bond soldiers form in times of war: communal hard work and sacrifice for a cause greater than each as individuals, with what all agree are extremely high stakes. We spent one late night in a restaurant in Detroit’s Greektown discussing the campaign and our motivations and our hopes and expectations after the election, and this seemed to send everyone out into the field with some real clarity and passion for the mission.
Lest this sound like sentimentalism, David Plouffe, in The Audacity To Win, illustrated a common theme of a bunker mentality, deeply shared sacrifice, dispersed investment in the campaign along a community organizing model, and collegiality within a strict “no drama” culture. This type of interaction and bonding was at the heart of the Obama campaign strategy, and this aspect of the Detroit indoctrination was very much by design. It got DFO’s acculturated to the organization and prepared us to operate in the field office environment –- the front lines of the campaign -– as much as any technical instruction.
Once out in the field, I found myself at a well-established operation working out of a strip mall storefront in Canton, Michigan, a Detroit suburb populated with a combination of former Reagan Democrats –- conservative, working class Dems, many of whom worked in one of the Ford plants at either end of Canton (Ypsilanti to the west and Wayne to the east) –- and upscale residents of single family homes built during the ‘90s/2000′s building boom who sought affordable housing prices and excellent public schools.
The paid staff- mostly Field Organizers in their early 20’s had been on the ground since June and knew their “turfs” intimately. They had been making calls, recruiting volunteer teams, walking the streets, attending community events, and feeding data into Votebuilder. The reason the Obama campaign had far more accurate numbers than any of the national polls and popular tracking websites (save Nate Silver, of course) was because the field operatives were feeding copious amounts of data into the machine.
The most important piece of data as we came down the backstretch of the campaign was where a voter fell on the “Obameter”: a 1 through 5 scale which classified a 5 as a committed supporter, a 4 as an Obama lean, a 3 as undecided, a 2 as a McCain lean, and a 1 as a committed McCain supporter. Whether on the phone or face to face while walking the streets, our job was to try to turn 3’s into 4’s, 4’s into 5’s, and 5’s into volunteers.
As we moved towards Election Day – and the “get out the vote” (GOTV) effort for the three days prior – this Obameter data that had been painstakingly gathered for 5 or 6 months and fed into Votebuilder enabled a highly targeted effort. When I did my canvasses in those final days, I would print out my “turfs” with a list of addresses to either knock on doors or leave door-hangers with a reminder to vote and the location of the voter’s polling place. There was no wasted effort: by then we knew exactly which houses were 4’s or 5’s and thus we were able to focus our full effort on getting our people out to the polls. We were not changing minds that last weekend – there were few undecideds by then. We just wanted to make sure we drove turnout with little wasted time or resources.
Short of the regional directors, who participated in daily conference calls and had a direct line to the senior campaign staff and number-crunching “boiler rooms”, field organizers’ contact with the campaign hierarchy came either through our directors or through the same online presence that drew in everyone else. I referred to the organization as an “open source campaign”: the code was there for anyone to work with and improve upon. We were not trying to fake out McCain. We just knew that we had an exponentially larger organization, and if the strategy, tactics and message were clearly understood from Plouffe and Axelrod down through the grassroots volunteers, the organization could pull in the same direction and execute better than the other team.
To use a football metaphor: by the time we reached the general election campaign in the summer of 2008, we had first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. We didn’t need a play action pass or a trick play. We told the world what we were doing and there was no wizardry involved. We just had to line up, execute our blocking assignments, and punch it into the end zone. That was the ground game. But it was the culmination of a long drive to move the ball down the field all year with a balanced offense of reaching every available market segment and engaging them where they were. For older voters, it was at home, by knocking on doors. For labor unions, it was at work – many of our field offices were in UAW halls, and our state headquarters was in the Michigan Teachers Federation building. For younger voters that used to turn out in smaller numbers, it was online.
The result was a double-digit win in Michigan – which had once been considered a battleground state – and an electoral landslide. Obama’s margin of victory was the largest since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
What was the nature of your social media activity during the campaign? Did you join any Obama support groups on Facebook? Did you update your FB status and Twitter with messages of support?
I definitely joined a few groups on Facebook, but I can’t say I was terribly active within them. Facebook was still relatively new to most people in early 2008 — it was just hitting its tipping point — and we were all sifting through what functionality and what content was really useful and impactful.
My primary approach in the realm of social media was daily posting of content from the New York Times and other credible media outlets, or entertaining (and revealing) clips from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I tried to avoid content from the partisan media like the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, or Keith Olbermann. By and large, content from partisan sources would would only help me preach to the choir. You can have a horse in the race without being so much of a wing nut that you have lost all perspective. Nothing from Arianna Huffington or Markos Moulitsas is going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with me, and being a disseminator of that kind of content would only erode my credibility while I was seeking to elevate the conversation within the social network while campaigning there.
Did you set up a personal page on MyBarackObama.com? Did you populate it with any content (eg, blog posts)? Did you raise any money through it? How much? Did you personally donate any money to the campaign? Comfortable sharing how much?
I set up a page on MyBarackObama.com and, once I joined the campaign effort at Camp Obama and then in Michigan, I posted my campaign blog there. I did not get involved in fundraising. I was not in position to contribute more than token donations, and I felt uncomfortable asking others to donate more money than I was prepared to, myself. So I focused my involvement in the campaign on evangelizing online and putting my own boots on the ground in Michigan.