a reader digest of…

THE AUDACITY TO WIN, 2009  by DAVID PLOUFFE, Obama’s campaign manager

The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory

« Vote for the new guy with the strange name and little Washington experience ? »

We put a huge premium on direct digital communication, as well as on the power of human being’s talking to human beings, online, on the phone, and at the door.


Amazing & improbable journey > 7 million more popular votes than anyone who had ever run for president, and a higher vote percentage than any Democratic candidate besides FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964…He had defeated the gold standards in both parties…


Reset the race/the campaign had to be all-consuming. Match the changing mood of the electorate and new technological advances to help us build a campaign to tap into the winds of change…Derailing Hillary.

Build not a winning campaign, but at least a credible one…

> Backtracking or zigzagging would unquestionably lead to a precipitous fall of the electoral cliff.

THE HOLLY GRAIL OF POLITICS –A FUNDAMENTALLY ALTERED ELECTORATE : Say you are a business trying to expand your percent of market share against an established brand-name product. Your competitor’s customers have been buying their products for decades and are unlikely to sample sthg new. How do you outsell that competitor without converting their customers ? You have to recruit new buyers >> younger, more minorities, independents…


> Our own social-networking site, heavy on video and tools for our supporters to organize and raise money and have discussions and find each other.

> Small circle > Ken Mehlman, Bush’s manager > the inner circle shouldnever expand : if you have to add someone new, someone has to be kicked out…A TEAM, agile, to serve the cause.

> Find some way to scale a mountain named Hillary, get around or blow a hole through…


A FANTASY CAMP FOR POLITICAL OPERATIVES ! This never happens in campaigns. You always need more help. Ground forces unprecedented in politics : almost all campaigns never have enough money or people to do what they’d like. Not this campaign : it’s like a fantasy camp for political operatives, so relish it because you may never see it again. Money matters…

Set the agenda, run the campaign on our own terms. Run the show our way. Diversify our events / Strong images. The events that best served us… + watch the side-by-side pictures of the candidates.

The message was a clear and distinctive frame for his candidacy. But, by far, the most important factor in our success was our candidate, a stellar candidate.

We began with the belief that we needed a clear message as well as a single strategy. Without our volunteer army, our strategy of a wide electoral map and multiple avenues to victory would have been the fantasy many people believed it to be…

Dominant Internet presence. Creative uses of the Internet. Organize, avoid media filter, collect money… Technology was at the core of our campaign from day 1. MyBo.com : a ‘real home’ for supporters… First goal : increase number of e-mails, then increase conversion rate (25%!).

Control the narrative and win the message war. You need to shift the national narrative. Attack creatively and respond in ways that captured the lion’s share of attention.

Ads targeted to specific demographic groups. Use everything that connote stature and fortitude. Put emphasis on certain issues and ideas and what we saw as McCain deficiencies. Brief the press… TV, radio and Internet ads were synched up and working in symphonic consonance in every battlestate. Amplify the press coverage, use it as a lever.

Determine your pathway to success and commit to it.

In politics, your two main pillars are your message and electoral strategy :

> What are you offering voters in terms of vision, issues and biography ?

> What is your most accessible path to a winning vote margin ?


Committed grassroots organization was a mighty weapon when properly motivated and trusted to take initiatives. Strong person-to-person communication. Build a message-delivery army.

Camp Obama : a training program we had established in Chicago and few other cities, where volunteers around the country could receive additional training on organizing –how we did it and why we did it… Ragtag militia. A mobile Obama army to blitzkrieg the country !

There is no more effective courier for a message than people who believe in it and have authentically embraced it. Harmony from top to bottom…A core of passionate early devotees. At last 95 percent of our 6 000 employees were under the age of 30, most under the age of 25. Mixture of availability and faith. They had a certain sense of mission.

Breaking free of the standard political paradigm and becoming a movementMarry digital technology & strong grass-root campaign.

Something bigger than us… a terrific esprit de corps. Respect > Pride > Mission > Inclusion > Dedication.

Staff are replaceable, a mass of dedicated volunteers is not. Innovation in campaigning : new uses, new people… equal salary for all. They didn’t become involved because they liked our backroom strategy or tactical brilliance, they got interested and involved for one reason –Barack Obama.

Always make sure to stress to volunteers they have standing behind them a national HQ –and, most important, a candidate- that believed in them and would make sure their work was strategically sound and received adequate resources & greetings.

Online promotion. ‘Dinner with Barack’ : we would select a group of donors to have a meal with Obama…Other contest winners got to spend time with us on the trail. Random. It was reminiscent of Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats.

Personal connection. Video conferences, live streaming video with the grass-roots supporters. Sharing the decision first with our supporters. Make them feel very connected to the campaign. All campaigners know there’s no glamour in our work…we are like Spartans.


5. WAR

What Axelrod would call jujitsu : trying to shine a spotlight on their attacks, not ignore them, and use their negative energy against them. No holds barred, bullet dodged. SARAH PALIN / Ax : ‘she’s now reached the stratosphere. Political gravity inevitably pulls someone shot this high back to earth. And usually, it’s not a pretty fall’…sent to the press penalty box…


Be the agenda-setter. We put the Clinton attacks front and center as rationale to vote for change. The final vote is always based on an alternative (altered) reality… [A tack Bill Clinton took against George Bush in 1992, when he declared that political attacks have never educated a child…]

• Obama’s time as a community organizer gave him the empathy and ability to help struggling families. Healthy campaign environment. All campaign long, Obama remained the standard bearer, lifting up expectations.

Biden remained a real advocate for people, which was ultimately what this whole enterprise was about. GR > they would be the embodiment of our campaign. Respect, empower, include.

– We didn’t use focus groups to make policy decisions. We used them to gauge how the arguments in the campaign were being received and digested it. (post debate SPIN sessions)

Sociological, geographic, demographic electorate. Computer-modeling of the electorate. Expand the electorate beyond habitual voters. Refuse to accept the electorate as it was. Make it younger and more diverse.

‘No matter what happens tonight, I’ll always treasure that scene. That’s what we tried to build. And at least in that school, on this night, it happened’.


Idealism kept us going, but pragmatism kept us grounded. It seems like an out-of-body experience. The DNA of the campaign was mostly David Axelrod’s. Though Ax was a street fighter when he needed to be, at heart, he was an idealist. This campaign, fueled by average people and appealing to their best aspirations rather than their darkest fears, was in many ways his ideal.

A campaign is a constant pressure cooker and the only exit is if the top blows. Keep your head down, work around the clock, and don’t reflect for a minute on what you’re missing – that’s the survival mantra.

NEW MEDIAS circumventing the mainstream media filter. This will mark a fundamental change in political coverage and message consumption, one that will only continue as technology rolls forwards : big moments, political or otherwise, will no longer be remembered by people as moments when everyone gathered around TVs to watch a speech, press conference, or other event. Increasingly, most of us will recall firing up the computer, searching for a video, and watching it at home or at the office…

I assume in future campaign this dept will be called Digital Strategy, not new media –it’s not new anymore, and it’s not just media…


30 mn air show (to be found here)…we showed up with a megaphone, and McCain barely had a working mic…

The president-elect was gazing in the direction of Abraham Lincoln’s imposing statue rising up and above the stage. For me, this was the moment when his election finally became real. Watching our first African American president looking quietly at Lincoln, the great emancipator, before taking the steps of the memorial built in his honor simply took my breath away…


Caroline Kennedy endorsement of Obama, in the NYT.


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