Baseball, Basques, Media, Politics

Lessons From Obama Online

Obama“Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency”Wired, November 4, 2009

A fascinating new report from two environmentally oriented foundations – Brainerd and Wilberforce – slices and dices the Obama For America online campaign of last year and offers some interesting conclusions not entirely in keeping with the media hype.

You can access the report – Online Tactics & Success – An examination of the Obama For America New Media Campaignhere.

The 42-page analysis concludes that, while the Obama team did a remarkable job utilizing email and the web in the 2008 campaign, the online success had more to do with the candidate than the technology. “The energy and enthusiasm of Obama supporters was unprecedented in modern elections,” the report says, allowing the new media team the daily – or hourly – ability to push a great “product.”

The foundations commissioned the analysis in order to learn what lessons non-profits should take away from the Obama campaign, but there is something here for everyone interested in how the Internet is remaking communication.

Like much of the rest of Obama’s historic march to the White House, the brilliance of the online campaign was in the quality of its execution. The report’s authors highlight seven key findings.

  1. Discipline: Develop best practices and stick with them. “ONLY send content that you know your supports will value.” And, have the discipline “to stay ON message.”
  2. The Right People: Obama campaign manager David Plouffe saw to it that the new media effort wasn’t organized as part of communications or finance, but as a stand alone part of the campaign. He then recruited top people from CNN, Google and Madison Avenue to staff what became an 81 person unit.
  3. Spotlight on Supporters: “The campaign made a concerted and deliberate effort to keep the spotlight on the people who supported Obama, and not just on the candidate.”
  4. Nimbleness: “The campaign was able to turn on a dime and launch a fundraising email within hours of [Sarah] Palin’s speech” criticizing “community organizers.” The email generated $11 million in contributions in a single day.
  5. Authenticity: “OFA managed to do something unique – share real, inside campaign information with its supporters, while making that information accessible and meaningful. Plouffe said: “Nothing is more important than authenticity. People have very sensitive bullshit-o-meters.”
  6. Content Matters: “From top notch emails, to 1,800 videos, to amazing graphic design, the new media team demonstrated a serious focus on content.”
  7. Data-Driven Culture: “More than any campaign in history, OFA was a data-driven operation.” The campaign created a six-person analytics team and tested and measured every aspect of the online program. “Entire projects were scrapped because the data showed they were not effective.”

The Brainerd/Wilberforce report offers this observation underscoring the essential requirement of any successful campaign – skillful execution:

“Fundamentally, the most successful elements of OFA’s new media program were not new. OFA’s new media team simply executed the same core strategies than many nonprofits have used for years – but they did so flawlessly.”

 

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

The Johnson Treatment

What Would Lyndon Do…

Before Vietnam defined his as “a failed presidency,” Lyndon Johnson assembled an historic record of legislative accomplishment. He got civil rights and voting rights legislation passed, created Medicare, federally guaranteed student loans and the national endowments for arts and the humanities. And that is certainly a partial list.

Of course, the bigger than life Texan – the flawed giant in biographer Robert Dallek’s words – had lots of help with all that legislation, but Johnson was the catalyst, the cajoler in chief. History records him as the nation’s greatest legislative politician.

In a great piece on the Daily Beast website, LBJ aide Tom Johnson, writes about how his old boss would have gotten a health care reform bill through the current congress. It’s worth reading to understand the full impact of the “Johnson treatment” and how effective LBJ could be in winning votes for his legislation.

Like every good politician, Johnson kept lists and he settled scores. The great Idaho Senator Frank Church was victim of Johnson’s attempt to make sure that the press and other Vietnam critics knew that the president can always have the last word.

As American involvement in Vietnam continued to divide the country with dimming prospects that the conflict could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion, Church became more and more outspoken in his opposition to the war. It was a principled and courageous stand at odds with many of his Idaho constituents and certainly at odds with President Johnson.

After a White House dinner, LBJ cornered Church to work him over for his stand on the war. According to the story, recounted in LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer’s fine biography of Church, the senator allegedly told the president that he had come more and more to agree with the celebrated Washington columnist Walter Lippman, who had turned sharply against LBJ’s Southeast Asia policy.

Only later did Church come to believe that Johnson himself was the source of a story making the rounds among reporters and cocktail party goers in Washington that LBJ had responded by telling the Idahoan, “Next time you need a dam out in Idaho – go talk to Walter Lippman.”

Makes you wonder what LBJ would be saying to Max Baucus or Chuck Grassley about health care reform right now.

Only two presidents in the past 50 years – Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan – have been able to consistently and effectively work the levers of presidential power to fundamentally reshape the American political landscape. We know Barack Obama is a student of history. The next few weeks may tell whether he can begin to work the levers as well as Lyndon and Ronnie did.

Books worth considering:

  • Ashby and Gramer’s Church biography is Fighting the Odds. It is the complete life and offers great insight into Idaho politics in from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.

 

  • Among the newest LBJ biographies is a fine book by Randall Woods called LBJ: Architect of American Ambition. Not exactly a favorable treatment of LBJ, but a fully nuanced take on his remarkable accomplishments and equally remarkable failures.

 

  • Bob Dallek’s two volume bio of LBJ – Lone Star Rising and Flawed Giant – helped redeem, to a degree, Johnson’s reputation as a great legislative tactician.

 

  • Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume Johnson biography is still in progress. Give Caro his due – he knows more about LBJ and had written more than anyone – but he lacks either Woods’ or Dallek’s sense of nuance or balance. Anything Caro produces is a must read for political junkies and his emphasis is always on the exercise of power, but count on heavy emphasis of the darkest of the dark side of Lyndon Johnson.

 

  • Finally, when it came out in 2005, William E. Leuchtenburg’s The White House Looks South received less – much less – attention than it deserved. Leuchtenburg focuses on FDR, Harry Truman and LBJ as he weaves a great narrative about how those three Democratic presidents had “one foot below the Mason-Dixon Line, one foot above.” His treatment of Johnson’s presidency is particularly good reading.

What would Lyndon do with a Congress coming back from an August recess all spun up about what to do with health care reform? You can bet LBJ would have had an aggressive plan and he would have worked himself into a lather trying to make it succeed.

Air Travel, Baseball, Books, Politics

Good Food for Political Junkies

The Battle for AmericaThe Definitive Book on the ’08 Election?

Political junkies, regardless of partisan leanings, may find the new Dan Balz/Haynes Johnson tome on the 2008 election must reading.

The book features sharp insights into GOP and Democratic grand strategy -including why Obama focused unprecedented attention on Idaho. The grand mistakes are aired, as well, including a dissection of the devastating infighting in the Clinton and McCain campaigns and McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Balz, the Washington Post’s top political writer, and Johnson, a Pulitzer winner and widely published author, have written the first really detailed account of the historic election.

The Battle for America 2008 doesn’t offer a lot of groundbreaking new material, but even a lot of the story we know is engagingly packaged. As a political tale it is no less interesting now than it was during the course of the long, long 2008 campaign. One particularly interesting section centers on the Obama campaign’s focus on caucus states – including Idaho.

Idaho – a Key to Obama’s Caucus Strategy

“Idaho became the textbook study of the Obama [caucus] strategy,” Balz and Johnson write. “Only a few thousand people had participated in the caucuses in 2004. Obama’s advisers realized that with a relatively modest investment, they could probably win. What made Idaho even more attractive was the volunteer cadre already at work.”

Obama’s national field director is quoted as saying: “By the time our first staffer landed in Idaho at the beginning of October, the Idahoans for Obama had organized themselves….they had an office ready to rent, had the phone lines already on order….and they had figured out the caucus rules and typed them up and put them together in sort of an easy-to-use here’s how to caucus in Idaho.”

Balz and Johnson go on to compare what happened to the Democratic campaigns in New Jersey and Idaho as a result of the attention by the Obama strategists on the opportunity they saw in ruby red Idaho.

“New Jersey had 107 delegates at stake on Super Tuesday, Idaho had just eighteen. [Hillary] Clinton won New Jersey by ten points (54 percent to 44 percent) and won eleven more delegates than Obama. But Obama’s investment in tiny Idaho neutralized the impact of New Jersey, as he won there by an astounding sixty-two points, more than 79 percent to Clinton’s 17. With that margin, he gained twelve more delegates than Clinton.”

(The fellow who gets a lot of credit for creating the Idaho organization, TJ Thomson, is now a candidate for Boise City Council.)

Not surprisingly, some of the juiciest material in The Battle for America involves the role Bill Clinton played in Hillary’s campaign.

Balz and Johnson do offer up some curious passages, usually when they attempt to draw larger political lessons from the 2008 campaign. They discuss, for example, changing demographics, particularly in the west and southwest, that helped drive Obama’s wins in places like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Then there is this passage:

“Through the 1970s and 1980s, Republicans had counted on California, the Rocky Mountain West, the South and the Great Plains to produce a virtual lock in presidential races. This was the springboard for the election of every Republican president from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan.”

Say what? The “virtual lock” observation is true enough, but the only Republican president between Nixon and Reagan was Gerald Ford who lost in 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the White House on his way to losing every state west of the Mississippi with the exception of Texas. Perhaps a better point would be to acknowledge that two Republican presidents – Nixon and Reagan – were each twice elected (and you can throw in George W. Bush, as well) by employing a Western/Midwestern/Southern strategy.

Still, a few nitpicks aside, if you love politics and find that you still cannot get enough of the last great campaign, The Battle for America 2008 is an engaging read.

The new book will fit nicely on the political bookshelf with Teddy White’s Making of the President series, Jack Germond’s and Jules Witcover’s fine books about the 1980, ’84 and ’88 elections and Richard Ben Cramer’s classic What it Takes about the 1988 candidates for president.