A Review by Mark Glover
David Plouffe’s book, ‘The Audacity to Win‘ provides strategic insights into the Obama campaign that gripped everyone in 2007/08 from the man who made the decisions about running the campaign on the ground. Whilst David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs were the main figures on message and media, it was Plouffe who drove the campaign, deciding where money was to be spent and how the campaign was to be organised.
As he gives a chronological account of the campaign, Plouffe is not averse to explaining, in his words, what worked and what didn’t. Interestingly, the most exciting chapters of the book relate to Obama’s Primary campaign against Clinton; particularly in the build up to Iowa and Super Tuesday, where the narrative is fast-paced and the insights fascinating. It is useful to address some of the insights individually as they might inform Labour’s campaigning.
Empowering your grassroots and creating an enthusiasm gap
Plouffe explains the campaign’s philosophy: that it was not Obama’s campaign, rather it belonged to the 6,000 staff and almost 1,000,000 volunteers and donors – who knocked on doors, phoned voters and made donations. These volunteers were recruited via the internet or in attendance at massive rallies across America. Much of the work was devolved and volunteers were challenged to meet targets, not just weekly requests to do something. Those that did well, received face time with Obama, who recognised their contribution. This approach created an ‘enthusiasm gap’ between fired-up Democrats, 90% of whom were under 30, and less enthusiastic Republicans.
The online strategy reinforced the campaign on the ground and events and rallies were used to drive people to the Obama website. This integrated approach led to supporters organising groups on Facebook and other social media platforms. This organic growth of the campaign reinforced the official activity.
It is an interesting fact that although these sites were monitored to ensure they were not producing conflicting material, the campaign actively encouraged online groups to set up and welcomed new approaches to achieving the campaign’s objectives.
This integration and natural growth online led to the huge fundraising capacity of the campaign overall ( billion raised) and the massive number of volunteers it inspired, including a greater turnout from BME and younger voters than ever before. Indeed, pollsters discovered that the election did not change the mind of those who voted in previous elections – amongst which group the results were almost tied – but it inspired a whole new generation of voters who fell 3-1 to Obama.
Clear principles and strategy
The campaign spent time at the beginning identifying its principles to ensure that the messages of the campaign would reinforce them. This approach penetrated the way the campaign responded to Republican and Democratic attacks during the primaries – strong rebuttal but no fighting in the gutter. Attacks were launched on McCain, but only in response to McCain’s attacks and only based on fact, not on slanderous hearsay. Often in the face of press criticism, particularly of Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright’s attacks on America, the campaign’s response was thoughtful – a keynote speech on race – used to define the candidate on a matter of principle. Indeed never did the campaign feel they had to pander to the press if it was contrary to the principles of the campaign.
On strategy Obama reached out from the traditional methods of campaigning and spoke to people directly, either through the internet or the 6,500,000 email addresses the campaign collected. This meant ordinary voters were briefed directly on an issue and could then act as advocates in their cities and towns.
As Plouffe comments:
“We started the campaign with the firm but risky belief that we could radically expand the electorate and that we could count on our grassroots supporters to execute our plan. This strategy proved wildly successful.”
My reading of this book reinforces my belief that Labour has to radically reconsider its interaction with members, both in practical terms but also in terms of the recognition that members receive for their activism and support.
For political campaign geeks this book is a Christmas must!