It’s easy to forget, almost a year later, as President Obama’s lackluster presentation of healthcare reform faces an wary reception among voters, that his was one of the most innovative and successful political campaigns in history.
That campaign—now a much-heralded case study widely examined by big business as well as political historians— furthered Howard Dean’s 2004 Internet-heavy presidential campaign by adding text messages, e-mails and long-form video to the mix—all of which enabled Obama’s team to cast out broad messages and microtarget at the same time.
The effort, masterminded by former campaign manager David Plouffe, 42, pulled out all the stops to get young, disenfranchised voters to the polls. There was even a video game ad.
Historians will no doubt debate whether Plouffe’s campaign had the great fortune to coincide with the ascension of Facebook and Twitter or whether the campaign itself is responsible for the rise of those social networking sites; after awhile it all blurred together. “This campaign could not have been run 10 years ago,” says senior campaign strategist Jim Margolis, a senior partner at GMMB, one of several agencies that worked on the effort (chief strategist David Axelrod’s AKPD Message and Media, which Plouffe joined in 2000 as senior advisor, is another.) “It was fueled by the Internet,” Margolis says. “It was fueled by people’s involvement and activism.”
The end result: $639 million in fundraising—with average donations amounting to little more than $90—and the White House. As opponent John McCain admitted relative ignorance of the Internet (“I’m an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get,” McCain told Politico in 2008, regarding his computer prowess), Plouffe saw it as the prime vehicle for the election. “We viewed the Internet as an engine to gather people,” explained Plouffe in a video acceptance speech of a media award earlier this year. (Plouffe declined to be interviewed for this article.) “We were starting from scratch,” he said. “We knew we had to get millions of people involved to have any chance of winning the election.”
Plouffe, who left the University of Delaware a semester shy of graduating, has nearly 20 years of experience on the campaign trail. He joined forces with Obama in 2003, when he and fellow AKPD partner Axelrod began working on Obama’s 2004 race for Illinois junior senator. “David is an extraordinary strategist,” says Margolis. “One of the most important aspects of the campaign was something that David understood from the start: the importance of authenticity.”
It might be added that Plouffe also understood the idea of microtargeting. Early on in Obama’s presidential campaign, Plouffe bet heavily on the Iowa caucuses and penetrated all 99 counties in the state. (It also helped that Plouffe knew the state well, having served as deputy field director for Sen. Tom Harkin’s successful reelection effort in 1990.) After that, he focused on racking up as many delegates as possible, which meant learning the minutiae of caucuses versus primaries, a difference that Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Mark Penn, was said to famously be unaware of (instead, he focused on wins in big states.)
Unlike showboating stump managers of the past such as James Carville, campaign brains for Bill Clinton, Plouffe is not a self-promoter. Those who work with him say he leads by example. He commands respect with a low-key temperament and stayed calm even in the most challenging days of the campaign. It was an echo of Obama, who was largely unrattled throughout the two-year effort.
“[Plouffe] became the symbol of the competence and creativity of the movement and the fact that you can’t bring about change if you don’t go about things differently,” says Mike Moffo, Obama’s national director of special projects, who worked with Plouffe and national field director Jon Carson on the campaign and is now vice president at SS+K, the New York-based agency that worked on a youth-targeted effort for the campaign. “It was definitely a reflection of Obama, but it was lived day in and day out by David.”
Since the election, Plouffe has been working on a book about the campaign (set to be released this fall) that has reportedly landed him a seven-figure contract. But not surprisingly, as Obama faces trouble marketing healthcare reform, he’s calling on Plouffe once again, who is turning to the campaign’s millions of followers via e-mail. In August, Plouffe invited supporters to join a live strategy meeting with the president online and via conference call. “This meeting is our chance to huddle as a team, get the latest information and talk about how we’re going to achieve this victory,” he wrote.
Margolis acknowledges the enormity of the issues such as healthcare and energy reform that the president is trying to attack—issues that have long plagued the country. “These are hard problems, some aren’t going to get addressed in exactly the way we would hope. But at least there is a willingness to confront these problems and try to do it in an honest way and include the American people,” he says. “One of the things that this campaign tried to do was meet people where they were. I think that effort continues now within the administration and hopefully it has the same effect and impact.”