Book Excerpt: Organizing the 2008 Obama Online Campaign

Guest article! Today we have another excerpt from Daniel Kreiss’s excellent new book, “Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama,” available in the Amazon store. This installment focuses on the establishment of Obama’s 2008 online team, in particular on how it functioned within the campaign, providing detail on HOW the campaign arrived at the structure described in Learning from Obama. Check it out below, along with the excerpt from the introduction we ran a few days back, then buy the book.

To have any chance against Hillary Clinton, Obama’s senior strategists believed that the campaign needed to expand the electorate. While Obama was attracting media attention typically only accorded to the top tier of candidates as a result of his 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, he was running against two better known opponents. Hillary Clinton enjoyed the greatest name recognition, the backing of many party elites, and a campaign staff drawn from the party’s top tier of consultants. John Edwards was a decided underdog to Clinton but a former vice presidential nominee who enjoyed broad support among liberals and much of the online netroots drawn to his newfound populism. Faced with this primary field, from the very beginning the campaign’s senior staff placed an emphasis on reaching unregistered voters and those groups who historically have had low rates of voter turnout.

Organizational Structure

During the earliest days of the primaries senior staffers planned to invest in new media to help expand the electorate. In January 2007, Jim Brayton, the Internet director for Obama’s Hope Fund political action committee, reached out to Joe Rospars to let him know that Obama was planning to run and to inquire whether he might be interested in interviewing for a position on the campaign. As the former web developer and systems administrator for the Dean campaign, as well as co-founder and chief technology officer of EchoDitto, Brayton was familiar with Rospars’s work since 2003.

Brayton’s call took Rospars by surprise. Heading into the 2008 elections, Rospars could imagine himself working for only two candidates, Gore or Obama. He thought that neither would run. Rospars found the possibility of working for Obama intriguing. Rospars believed that Obama, unlike the other major candidates in the race, would adopt the position of the insurgent and “run like he had nothing to lose.” And, he saw it as an opportunity to go up against a establishment candidate with what was widely regarded as the “A” team of Democratic Party consultants.

Campaign manager David Plouffe made it clear to Rospars in their initial meeting that he wanted new media to be “at the center of the campaign.” The location of the New Media Division within the organizational hierarchy was a key indicator of whether it would have this role. After some negotiation, Plouffe organized the New Media Division as a separate, stand-alone division, with Rospars as its senior staff head. In terms of the campaign’s organizational chart, this meant that Rospars was on a par with the heads of the other divisions, including field, finance, and communications. This decision had a number of significant consequences for the use of new media by the campaign. Rospars was a participant in key campaign decisions, representing the needs of the division’s staffers. The division could also advocate for resources and had autonomy with respect to other divisions. As the former deputy director of new media and chief technology officer of the campaign Michael Slaby describes, having Rospars as a senior staffer meant that:

“We could say no to communications and that was a huge, incredibly important thing because it meant that when we would try to make a case for something it wasn’t getting filtered to Plouffe. Joe would walk directly into Plouffe’s office and said this is why this is important.”

After coming on board in January, Rospars negotiated with the other staffers of the exploratory committee over the scope of the division’s activities. As Rospars describes, as the organization began taking shape there was “a series of skirmishes along the edges of responsibility across the whole campaign. Not just with us, everybody was sort of figuring that out and seeing who is doing what.” New media pose a particularly acute problem, given that networked technologies are a central part of the infrastructure for all contemporary campaign activities. The problem, in essence, is that a host of organizational divisions can legitimately make claims to handle functions conducted with new media, from advertising to fund-raising. For example, the campaign’s communications staffers could easily argue that they should have authority over Internet advertising given their responsibility over all the candidate’s television, radio, and print spots.

To resolve any potential conflicts between divisions, and to clearly delineate organizational responsibilities, Plouffe asked Rospars to choose activities that the New Media Division would unequivocally handle. Rospars chose e-mail and online advertising, based on his belief that specialized new media staffers could better utilize them than the staffers of other divisions. When coupled with online organizing on the MyBO platform and other communications over the Internet (such as the campaign’s blog, web videos, and web design), which were unequivocally the domain of new media from early on, as well as merchandising (run with the Finance Division), these activities encompassed the scope of the Division’s work. Rospars’s choices reflect considerable changes in new media practice since 2004. Through the work of MoveOn, the Dean campaign, and firms such as BSD, e-mail had evolved into a distinct genre of campaign communications with defined content and format norms and data practices. Meanwhile, online advertising had changed dramatically in four years, becoming a highly specialized practice with more complex pricing and buying schemes and sophisticated targeting mechanisms.

E-mail, in particular, was a central component of the New Media Division’s work and a source of its considerable organizational power. For one, the division was responsible for all communications between the campaign and its supporters using the e-mail list. This meant that every mass e-mail had to be cleared by the New Media Division first. Meanwhile, Rospars tightly controlled access to the e-mail list to avoid inconsistent messaging among the various divisions of the campaign, which he believed would jeopardize the careful cultivation of supporters detailed below. In practice, this control over e-mail meant that the division shaped the campaign’s communications and the candidate’s image on a daily basis for the 13 million individuals who, by the end of the campaign, had signed up for the e-mail list. This entailed new media staffers presenting the daily messaging, determined by David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, in a compelling way online, which differed from the traditional communications of the campaign in its often informal and explicitly mobilization-focused tone. Meanwhile, along with e-mail, online advertising and merchandising generated significant revenue for the campaign by mid-summer 2007. These revenues grounded many of the division’s requests for additional resources for staffers and new organizational responsibilities. During the early months of the primaries, when everything was focused on Iowa, there was a “constant relative justification of resources for more field, versus more media, versus more new media people.” Fund-raising was an early way in which new media proved its worth to the rest of the campaign.

Written by
Daniel Kreiss
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