David Plouffe: Negative Viral Emails As Bad As Negative TV Ads

November 18th, 2009

Also published on techPresident

Just off a conference call to promote Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s new (and so-far excellent) book about the 2008 race, which I’m currently about 3/4 of the way through — more about that soon. On the call, though, I got to ask a question about the behind-the-scenes smear emails that circulated regularly throughout the campaign — what did the campaign do to respond that was most effective, and how should future political operations reply to similar tactics?

Plouffe’s response was that campaigns need to take negative messages spread online from person to person as seriously as they would a negative TV ad or a direct attack from an opponent in a public appearance, providing yet another example of the extent to which the Obama team understood the changed media environment in which they ran. Conventional political wisdom might be to ignore below-the-radar attacks to avoid giving them credence, Plouffe said, but in the internet era a story that arrives in a million email inboxes matters even if it doesn’t lead the news.

To counter, as we’ve seen before, the campaign gave its own supporters the tools, at times at their request (Plouffe mentioned that the Fight The Smears website was a volunteer suggestion, for instance), so that they could fight what amounted to an email-to-email guerrilla campaign. One additional lesson was to keep a sense of proportion even as they took every public or private attack seriously, as for instance when they declined to respond to the Obama-is-a-celebrity meme that the McCain campaign tried to spread (Paris Hilton was there on her own, thankfully).

When describing the campaign’s overall posture toward the ‘net, Plouffe used a formulation that also appears in the book, that the campaign needed to be in the places where people were living their lives. Many of us now spend big chunks of our time online, and Obama’s campaign could not be an exception if it were to reach its true potential. Multi-channel connection was the name of the game, particuarly in battleground states, where the campaign was at people’s doors, on their televisions, at their community centers, in their inboxes on the websites they visited regularly.

In both the book and the call, Plouffe described online technology as one of the core non-candidate reasons they were able to win, and as inseparable from the grassroots army they relied on from the beginning of the campaign all the way through election day. An interesting discussion! Alas, I wasn’t able to get him to bite on the assertion that Obama wouldn’t be president without the internet….

More on Plouffe’s book shortly, once I’ve had a chance to digest it.

cpd

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