Campaign manager David Plouffe’s lessons from a historic presidential victory

By Brian Morrissey


As far as a campaign brief goes, taking a man with barely two years in the U.S. Senate and making him the most powerful person in the world is a pretty tough nut to crack. That's what David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign manager, discussed in his Cannes seminar on Thursday, laying out some lessons from the winning presidential run. Plouffe tied the success of the Obama campaign, beyond having a tremendously gifted candidate, to its marriage of grassroots activism and digital technology. "We benefited in many ways that we could look at everything from a fresh set of eyes," he said. Here are some of the key points Plouffe made:
  1. Small is the new big. Obama was not the first politician to realize the collective power of small donors. But the former community organizer imbued his campaign with the notion that individuals on a local level can make a big difference beyond mere donations. Those donations helped power the campaign, of course, as Obama attracted 4 million donors through the Web. But innovations like My Barack Obama, a social network, allowed the campaign to go beyond that and have supporters involved directly in outreach and in combatting attacks on the candidate. "It started with a dictate from him," said Plouffe. "He wanted to run a grassroots campaign."

AFTER THE JUMP: Four more lessons from the Obama campaign.

  2. Word of mouth rules. On the local level, the Obama campaign eschewed paid operatives and out-of-town volunteers in favor of those within the communities. Plouffe noted that while people would tune out chattering from a political junkie, they'd listen to a neighbor energized by a candidate for the first time. The campaign tried to encourage word of mouth by stressing authenticity. Volunteers weren't given scripts, for example. "We said, 'Speak from your own heart,' " Plouffe said. "Nothing is more powerful than authenticity. People can have a very sensitive bullshit meter."
  3. Conventional paths are dangerous. The campaign went against the grain in many of its choices. Obama directly confronted the issue of Rev. Jeremiah Wright with a high-profile speech. He held his convention speech in a huge outdoor stadium. He traveled abroad as a candidate. "When we did [conventional things], we paid a price for it," Plouffe said.
  4. Integration and ubiquity. One of the biggest challenges for the Obama campaign, Plouffe said, was making sure its messaging stayed consistent on a daily basis. If the candidate was talking health care on a particular day, the ads in that market needed to reinforce the message, and local volunteers needed to be armed with information on the subject. Not coordinating the messaging "is a mistake a lot of organizations make," Plouffe said. The campaign also wanted to be everywhere—online, on the air and on the ground.
  5. Traditional media is still king. The Obama brand's biggest challenge early on was a familiar one: It had very low awareness and wasn't in the consideration set for many voters. TV was the key to changing that. The Obama campaign has been praised for its online efforts, but TV still played a major role, Plouffe said, particularly in helping to introduce the candidate. The campaign made different use of the medium, however, most notably with the 90-minute infomercial it aired two weeks prior to the election. Even within its online efforts, its most important tools were fairly old school, particularly e-mail. The campaign also made extensive use of Web video. "I know it's fashionable to suggest TV advertising is less and less important," Plouffe said. "In our campaign, it played a critical role."
  The presentation, hosted by DDB, got a rapturous reception from the international crowd. It remains to be seen if the Obama campaign is seen as groundbreaking enough to garner a Titanium Lion.