How to Campaign like Obama

Obama's 2008 campaign for the US presidency (and for the US Democratic party's nomination) is widely viewed as one of the most effective campaigns ever run. Campaigners around the world are looking to learn from it. To do that we need to debunk the myths and highlight the critical success factors.

Over-simplifications and wishful thinking by journalists and bloggers suggest that the Internet has been a decisive factor in winning an election campaign. Specifically referenced is the Obama campaign (2008) and (January 2010) with Republican Scott Brown's campaign in Massachusetts, USA.

This article is written just with what I know about campaigning, e-campaigning and what I observed, read and heard about the Obama campaign.

Understanding the real reason they won and the what role the Internet and other digital media played in that win are crucial for campaigning practitioners and managers to know what are priorities and know what contribution digital media can have a campaign.

The Facts

Obama won with 52.9% of the popular vote which was 69.5 million votes and had 9 million more votes than John McCain. Since the popular vote doesn't always mean winning the presidency in the US (the electoral vote does), Obama received 365 of 538 electoral votes: 68%.

Over-simplistic statements like "it was his 13 million email addresses" that won the election for him just don't add up. Not only would many of those 13 million people voted for him anyway (only the most motivated and connected people provide an email address), but most modern US (and OECD) elections are won by convincing the independent and 'undecided' voters.

Other's Analysis

It is interesting that in many other's analysis of why Obama won the election, some never even mention the Internet. For example:

I have selected these from among the top links from a google search of "how obama won the election". Few mentioned the Internet as a factor and none as the key factor.
Pew Internet research found out that the Internet was a strong contributing factor, but not the decisive one: it was likely a combination of factors that range from Obama as a candidate to how the campaign was run, who his opponents were, people's yearning for change after GW Bush and geo-demographic shifts.

The Fundamentals of Campaigning

Before any campaign starts, there needs to be a power analysis: an assessment of where the 'power' to achieve your goals lie and how to influence it. For elections it is very clear: power is with voters and you need to be their best choice for the leadership they wish to see. For non party-political campaign, it is usually less clear.

Thus, regardless of if it is Obama's Campaign in 2008, Republican Scott Brown's campaign in 2010 or any other politician, the fundamental strategy is to:

  1. Get existing supporters to vote for you (and/or your agenda) - not just say they will vote for you.
  2. Convince non-affiliated voters that are favourable to your agenda to vote for you. This includes ensuring they are on the electoral register.
  3. Convince those truly non-affiliated and those non-affiliated who are only slightly unfavourable to your party to vote for you
  4. Demoralise, seed doubts in or demotivate opposition supporters so they don't vote (usually not explicitly as that would likely backfire)

In 21st century politics, getting existing supporters to vote is necessary but not sufficient. Getting non-affiliated support is crucial, but most will already favour a party so the key is to get them to actually vote. Note that many people (including many journalists) believe the myth that real power is with the independents - but political scientists have discredited this for decades.

This fundamental strategy applies to non party-political (civil society) campaigns too (assuming the power analysis results in the same conclusion: inspire and mobilise large number of people to act). However campaigns are complex and it takes getting many things right for them to succeed. I'm going to explore how Obama did it and debunk some myths journalists and others use to oversimplify his (and others') success.

Campaigning like Obama isn't difficult if you have the right priorities and people with the right expertise - but are almost impossible without that. Unfortunately these are exactly the areas on which most campaigning organisations compromise. Yet if you are determined to apply the learning from the Obama campaign in your own campaigning, here is what you need to know.

How Obama Won

We all know that campaigning is most effective when all campaigning activity is aligned. Before I go into how to campaign online like Obama, I'll first explore how to campaign like Obama.

The goals of the Obama campaign were simple: fundraise, convince voters and get them to actually vote. Unfortunately not all civil society campaigns have (or can have) such clear goals.

The key factors in Obama's campaign success in achieving this were:

  1. Obama's has experience as a 'local campaigner' (a 'community organizer' in US English): someone who would organise and motivate local communities to fight for an issue against an entrenched institution. So how his campaign was run has real lessons for campaigners and campaigning organisations around the world - perhaps more lessons than it has for party-political campaigning. The 'field program' (4,000 paid local organisers to coordinate the volunteers) is thus cited by as the key reason Obama won. As David Plouffe put it: "There's nothing more valuable than a human being talking to a human being. Nothing."
  2. Obama's personal charisma, demeanour and life story
    Obama has many qualities that appeal to people: he is an inspiring public speaker, he exuded calm when many in the US were panicking over the financial meltdown and his life story. For a campaigning non-profit, the equivalent would be campaign message: does it appeal to the intended audience?
  3. Opportunity: disillusioned with of GW Bush and Republicans plus an economic meltdown Obama happened to be the right candidate for the time. He promised change when the opinion of the existing administration was at an all time low. He offered a calm, thoughtful response when people were panicking about the economy. He promised unity when people were sick of partisanship. He offered hope when people were losing it. For a campaigning non-profit, being in-tune with the mood and stories of the times makes a significant different in the likelihood of success.
  4. Outsider: Obama was perceived as an 'underdog' in the campaign for a range of reasons: better financed rivals, representing the party in opposition, perceptions of his ancestry, a short history in politics, etc. This helps be seen as an alternative to everything people have disliked about the current system and government.
  5. Expertise: talented team with the right involvement and authority
  6. Strategy: people’s campaign, inclusive, networking
  7. Integrated communication: talking about the same thing at the same time across all channels (Obama, news, advertising, website, emails)
  8. Inspired people: "change you can believe in" - a positive message
  9. Consistency: he and his campaign stayed on message and united
  10. Proactive: they anticipated, outsmarted and outpaced competitors
  11. Tactics: local everywhere - face-to-face, Internet, media

Obama's experience as a local campaigner (called a community organiser in the US) was crucial for many of these areas. The principles of campaigning locally - focusing on people and personal relevance - infused all parts of the campaign.

A suitable formula is:

Planning + Message + Opportunity = Success

Most organisations focus on the message: researching it, planning it and delivering it. Very few do comprehensive campaign planning (including contingency and continuity planning) and are organised to rapidly take advantage of opportunities. It is not money that buys these, but priorities and expertise.

The General Campaign Myths

  1. Myth: you need a lot of money.
    Fact: While Obama's campaign ended with more than $600 million USD, it didn't start with much money. It was able to raise that much money because it had the right priorities from the beginning and remained committed to them throughout. What it did was invest in the right areas from the beginning.
  2. Myth: All of Obama's donors gave $200 or less
    Fact: A majority of Obama's donors gave $200 or less each time, but only 26% had a total contribution of $200 or less (the same as George Bush in 2004). Obama's real fundraising success was in encouraging repeat donors.
  3. Myth: Obama's campaign had lots of staff
    Fact: By the end of the campaign it has lots of staff, but at the beginning it focused on having the right staff for that stage.
  4. Myth: Obama's campaign's use of the Internet was instrumental in its success.
    Fact: I'd love for this to be true. While the Internet was one of the key tools for the Obama campaign, it was the way the Obama campaign synchronised it communication strategy across all channels and used each for its strengths that helped him win. The Internet was only one of these channels.

The Obama Campaigning Model

Many people think there is a new 'Obama' campaigning model. However everything the Obama campaign did, someone else had done before. So what made the real difference? Best practice.

While everything the Obama campaign did has been done before, others did a few things well. The Obama campaign focused on doing everything well. This meant they got a tremendous multiplier effect by being effective across all areas of the campaign. For example:

  • Contingency planning: They identified Obama's potential weaknesses, produced their own anti-Obama ads and then tested them on focus groups with a range of counter-strategies. Thus when their opponents used them, they knew how to respond (or not respond) and could do it within hours.
  • Continuity planning: They put time into planning for phases of the campaign that they may never have got to, but if they did they would be ahead of opponents. For example they had a team working exclusively on the plans for post "Super Tuesday" - the day in the process to select each party's' candidates when so many states vote that there could be a decisive winner. There was also a team working on the strategy and implementation of the transition to the presidency before he's even won.
  • Empowering supporters: the communication constantly emphasised that this was not just about Obama, it was about the ability of the American people to bring about change. This went beyond rhetoric to practice by encouraging, directing and supporting people to self-organise - including giving them the tools and information to do so and letting people tell their own story in their own way of why they supported Obama.
  • Daily Alignment: all channels needed to be on the same topic on the same day. Thus when Obama spoke on a topic, this would be reflected in the advertising, by volunteers knocking on doors as well as in emails and on the website.
  • Nimbleness: responding within hours via email and online video often meant scooping mass media.
  • Analysis: It is said that Carl Rove, architect of GW Bush's two wins, was a data-geek. The Obama campaign took this one step further and not only had an analysis team, but used its supporter network to collect more real-time data. As a result, they could adapt their strategy and tactics daily to what they were finding.
  • Online, email is crucial: They focused on using email for campaigning online, with the primary objective of all social networking presences to direct people to sign-up for emails on the Obama site. This had been best practice for over a decade and will remain best practice for the foreseeable future despite Facebook, Twitter and whatever else comes along. Email is still the best medium to directly and repeatedly reach supporters.
  • Hiring experienced people: The Obama campaign hired people who had doing it before, knew where to focus and what to avoid. They also hired enough people to do the jobs required so each person could do their job well.

Lessons for Campaigning Organisations

So what should campaigning organisations learn from this?:

  1. Planning is crucial. In addition to policy research, audience research and a campaign strategy, but also power analysis, target research, continuity plans, contingency plans. This includes planning so that opportunities can be seized when they arise.
  2. Analyse performance. This keeps you focused on what works and provides insights to keep you ahead of the targets. The science of campaigning is just as important as the art. Take data analysis seriously or be doomed to waste money, time and get off-track.
  3. Audience-centred public communication: it's about them and their passions, not you. This applies even to evidence-led organisations (vs. member led): even with the agenda determined by the evidence, the messaging to the public and supporters need to be about how it is relevant to them. For a diverse audience or a locally relevant issue, this means segmented communications.
  4. Invest in experience. Hire a specialist. Give them responsibility and autonomy. Get training for existing staff or individual weaknesses. Run small scale experiments. Stimulate specialists and support staff with feedback from performance analysis. Just don't pile it on overworked staff (at least without removing other work), new graduates or interns. Knowing how to communicate does not mean you can campaigning effectively.
  5. Plan for scaling: the resources (people's time and budget) it took to double or triple supporters or donations need to be increased to continue succeeding. If they do not increase, not only will success slow, but it may actually reverse if the successes (e.g. new recruits, donations) are not nurtured.
  6. Combine campaigning with donating. Results from a growing number of organisations are showing that donating around campaigning actions works and is accepted by supporters. It doesn't mean abandoning dedicated fundraising efforts, just adding fundraising as an option for campaign planning (e.g. to fund a stunt or the campaign).

Smart Campaigning

Applying these strategies, principles, priorities and practices not necessarily easy, but they are smart. The key question: is winning your campaign important enough to be smart with your campaigning?

What it takes to be smart with campaigning is what the Obama campaign team had: informed leadership from the top and people with the right skills and knowledge. Sadly, most campaigns have gaps in both areas and either fail to recognise them or fail to resolve them. The best time to start resolving them is now.

Ultimately smart campaigning means that if it can be won, it is won sooner. That saves money in the long term and is easier than trying to fix things along the way. Perhaps what is thus needed is an investment plan for campaigns than spans the budget cycles and allows a strong foundation to be established.

Further Reading and Viewing

To read more about the overall Obama Campaign and his competitors see:

by Duane Raymond published Feb 21, 2010,