By Michael Hawley | Obama's success combines old lessons with innovation.
Last Thursday, Alan Solomont hosted yet another Election ’08 Brown Bag Lunch. These events afford an excellent opportunity for politically minded students to meet, question, and interact with major players and veterans of Presidential campaigns. This week’s guest, Betsy Myers, a senior advisor in the Obama Campaign, offered valuable insight into the workings of that organization. Her experience gives a glimpse of how future presidential campaigns will likely function. Whatever the outcome of this election, Republicans and Democrats alike should examine carefully the lessons of the Obama campaign, and seek to apply the innovations that have helped propel an unlikely, inexperienced candidate to within grasp of the nation’s highest office.
The first Chief Operating Officer of Obama for America, Betsy Myers, confirmed something that Republican strategists have long feared: Democrats have taken the political lessons of Karl Rove, Lee Atwater and others to heart. Democrats finally understand that motivating and mobilizing a party’s base gives it an enormous advantage in an election. They have come to realize that discipline and keeping on message are vitally important. Finally, they recognize that, as Myers says “a campaign is a $100 million start-up company.” Therefore, it should be run like a business.
Obama has implemented each of the above lessons, which constitute standard operating procedure for Republicans, successfully in his campaign. Early on, Obama made the liberal grassroots of the Democratic Party his core constituency. He rode their support to victory in the primaries, and they remain an enormous asset to him as volunteers for the general election. The Obama Campaign’s message has been very consistent: few statements by either Obama or running-mate Joe Biden fail to include a reference to “change,” and the insinuation that John McCain constitutes a potential third term of President Bush. Obama himself has remained largely gaffe-free due to thorough restriction of the press’s access to the candidate. He has furthermore banished all “drama” from his campaign, refusing to allow petty personal differences to distract attention. Moreover, Obama has brought in people with business experience to help manage the campaign’s budget and to ensure that money is spent wisely and effectively.
But, beyond learning from the success of past Republican candidates, the Obama campaign has broken new ground in several areas that help give his campaign an edge.
Bucking a longstanding trend, Barack Obama has been able to involve young voters in his campaign to an unparalleled extent. Every election year, candidates claim to want to inspire youth participation in politics, but consistently, the younger demographics prove to be unreliable supporters. This year however, youth turnout has been exceedingly high. 36 million people voted in the Democratic primaries alone, many of them college-age. Obama’s hip and youthful persona doubtless contributes to his popularity among 18-25 year-olds, but this along does not account for his double-digit lead over McCain among them. Myers reports that Obama has invested considerable resources in campus outreach and in the Internet, a medium that Howard Dean utilized notably in 2004. Myers says that while the Dean campaign was deeply flawed, it did reveal the awesome potential of the Internet to coordinate volunteers, convince undecided voters, and raise money.
Myers argues that the Dean campaign showed them how to mobilize young people to volunteer, but that it failed to organize them in a way to take advantage of them. She recalled the often-cited image of the orange-capped young people milling around in towns in Iowa in 2004, willing to help, but with nothing to do. This year, coordination and organization have been top priorities; volunteers are deployed strategically and used responsibly. Significant funds have been invested in social networking sites like Facebook, which the Obama campaign has exploited quite successfully. Most importantly, Obama has raised unprecedented sums of money using the Internet and a strategy targeted at small donors. In August alone, he raised $66 million. Since most of his donors give well below the legal limit, he can return to them time and again for more money, making him the best-funded Presidential candidate in history.
In addition to serving as Obama’s Chief Operating Officer, Myers has also served as the Chairwoman of Women for Obama, and led the effort to unify the Clinton and Obama camps after Senator Clinton conceded the nomination. She describes an Obama campaign that is ably led, efficiently run, and highly energized. Learning from the successes and failures of the past, it has also shown a prescient grasp of the importance of new technology as a weapon in the arsenal of a campaign. Win or lose, the Obama campaign has blazed a path to the new information-age of modern campaigns.
Mr. Hawley is a sophomore who has not yet declared a major.