Learning lessons from Obama’s campaign: Budgeting, technology, field, and media

A fantastic interview with Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe. It really shows the link between organization, technology, and media. It also shows how we need to shift focus on budgetting.

In response to a question about how much the campaign spent on media, Plouffe responds:

D.P.: Right, the playbook is 70 to 75 percent, and we did much less than that. Under 50 percent.

I have argued that the fundamental innovation of the Obama campaign wasn’t technology, but it was the investment in grassroots. You can see this Plouffe’s explanation:

D.P.: Well, we spent obviously a lot of money on TV, but as a ratio of our spending, it was much lower than historically is done, and that’s because we spent a lot of money in the field and on the ground. And, in fact, when we did our baseline budget, the field was fully funded because we thought it was very, very important. If we were to raise excess funds, we bolstered the field a little bit, but it went in advertising. Our first priority was the ground operation because we thought that was essential to us winning. It’s very much, I think, a unique approach. In a lot of campaigns, the media gets funded first, then if you have extra money that comes in, you bolster the field and things of that sort. And we kind of did it in reverse.

Patrick, Mindy, Turk, and others have had to argue for shifting a couple of percent of the media budget to online expenditures. They are correct. It is important to enhance an organization. But where do you get the organization? Obama decided to build it.

Think of the seeming insanity of the Obama approach. Build an organization early on, with a minimal media budget. And then use the overage for media, if you can get it.

But it worked. Read on for some of the details.


Pete Snyder, my boss at New Media Strategies, noted this and the link to technology earlier:

Obama acted quite differently. Having opted-out of his promise to abide by campaign finance laws (which proved to be one of his shrewdest and smartest moves), he went for broke. His campaign started pouring millions of dollars into opening scores of campaign offices in all 50 states, many in areas that Democrats hadn’t contested in decades. In the traditionally GOP-favoring Colorado, Obama set up 59 campaign offices to McCain’s 13.

In 2004, the Bush-Cheney campaign learned that there was a linear relationship between staffed field offices and volunteer activism and enthusiasm. Obama learned that lesson and applied it:

This time around, everyone counted. And given the power of social media, everyone who has the interest has the ability to influence and mobilize networks of friends. A blue dot in a sea of red could now make a real impact, both vote-wise and dollar-wise, to a presidential campaign. Obama got this and McCain really didn’t.

Early field investment, combined with effective technology, allowed the campaign to later leverage that technology into an organization that, among other things, raised unprecedented amounts of money. With much the same theory as direct mail, you invest early, build a list (in the end nearly 14m people) and then contact it repeatedly for activation and fundraising.

Some Republicans have argued that Obama’s organization will have been a one-off. I am not so sure, although it may only apply at the Presidential level, something Plouffe suggested. In 2012, we will see it again. And we may see it deployed in 2010 or 2014. We aren’t going to be able to approach Obama’s advantages in the meantime. And we can expect that some 2016 Democratic Presidential candidates will try a similar strategy.

This does suggest that campaigns, especially ones at the top of the ballot, should consider shifting more resources towards field and enhancing them with robust technology.