The Campaign Tapes

Ben Self

Ben Self

In 2003, Dr Howard Dean, the former Governor of the state of Vermont, ran a surprisingly popular campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination on a platform opposing the Iraq war and supporting universal healthcare. He raised more than $50-million for his insurgent campaign, much of it online from small contributions. His campaign began to wane in December 2003 after the capture of Saddam Hussein, and his underperformance in the Iowa Caucuses of January 2004 and his televised "Dean Scream" soon saw his campaign swamped by the less volatile Senator John Kerry. But Dean's campaign, utilising newly emerging social networking tools to organise events and the internet as a fundraising tool pointed the way ahead for other candidates, most notably Barack Obama's 2008 Presidential bid.

Ben Self, co-founder of the digital campaigning firm Blue State Digital, was one of Dean's team in 2004 and joined the Obama campaign in early 2007. Here he talks about the techniques that were used by the two most successful Presidential internet campaigns, and why they worked.



John Barron: Let's start talking about the 2004 Dean campaign – a lot of people see that as the genesis of Obama campaign – from your point of view, what were the lessons from "Dean" that you brought into the Obama campaign (in 2008)?

Ben Self: We learned a lot of different lessons from the Dean campaign.... from the very basic – learning about technology that was useful for a campaign – we in the Dean campaign tried to build all our technologies from inside the campaign and it turns out that campaigns are horrible organisations to build software because they are very short-sighted, they have and end-date and nobody really cares if they work after that. And so on a very basic level we learned that we should have this company to build the technology and deploy very quickly and easily to candidates on short notice.

But we also learned the fundamentals of staring to interact with people a different way online, talking to them with a voice, with a personality and engaging with them in a different way so you could talk to people about what they care about and listen to them when they talk back to you.

Barron: One of the lessons that others took from the Dean campaign was "hey look, you can make $27-million on the internet" – and everybody tried to do that – why did you succeed in not only raising $27-million but considerably more (for Obama) but also take those other tools in a way that those who worked with you with Dean but weren't able to do for John Edwards or Hillary Clinton?

Self: Many people falsely believe one of the tricks on the Dean campaign for raising money was that they had this graphic that they put on the website that was a (baseball) bat. And with that bat you had a goal and you'd fill it up with money as people donated to the campaign – and so the number of people after that who had their own bat on their website of had a mountain fill up of had a baseball glove – because they thought that was the key to raising money online – they failed miserably. The reason that worked was because people felt like they were part of the Dean campaign, they felt they had something to contribute to the campaign – the message was "Take Your Country Back".

Those were the things that actually caused people to donate not the tricks and tips. You have to have the passion associated with the particular person in order to use the internet to engage with folks. You know it's about removing the barriers to getting those people involved, it's about exciting them, it's about convincing them that it's worth doing and once you do those things you can challenge them to do really amazing things like raising a half a billion dollars online (as Obama did).

Barron: Your company was involved with the Obama campaign before most of us knew there was an Obama campaign, before there was a declaration – so, can you think back to an early meeting, maybe the first meeting that you had with the Obama campaign as it was forming, and what you said you could [do for them}?

Ben SelfSelf: Sure. We got the call ten days before that he announced for President. And they said, hey we want to run a different kind of campaign – we want to run a ground-up sort of campaign where we motivate and enable our supporters to really take charge and do something different. They weren't going to be the establishment candidate – they weren't going to have all the advantages – he was an African-American candidate with the middle name Hussein who had been a senator for three years, four years at the time (two years in fact) there were many cards stacked against you.

But because they were committed to doing things differently, to running a campaign that wasn't in the hands of lobbyist, we really believed that this was the kind of campaign people could really get excited about and motivated around. And so it seemed like a great opportunity to run with and take advantage of and provide the technology for.

Barron: One of the things – the conventional wisdom – that emerged out of 2004 was that Howard Dean had this great internet-based campaign but wasn't able to turn "mouse clicks into shoe leather"- come Iowa Caucus he came a distant third, then came the scream then it was over. What were you able to do with your internet strategy (with Obama) that worked with the grassroots campaign on the ground in a state like Iowa to ultimately lead to victory in January 2008?

Self: That was one of the lessons learned from the Dean campaign that you really need to take this online passion and convert it to things that actually help a candidate get elected. So it's not the number of blog posts someone writes or comments someone writes or how famous they are oin the internet site – that doesn't actually help get a candidate elected. What helps get a candidate elected are votes at the end of the day. So it's "how is what you're doing actually going to lead to a vote on Election Day?" And how are we going to convince people to perform more of those actions and perform less of the things that don't help. And so pushing people towards offline action, pushing voters to make phone calls on your behalf to talk to their friends, talk to their neighbours, donate money, give their time, volunteer – all these things that translate to votes – the campaign was really focussed on pushing people towards those actions.

Barron: In a state like Iowa, where you know that you have about 250,000 Democrats who are likely to go out and vote on caucus day - they are highly informed, often conservative, 95% white – how do you approach them and use the internet as a way to facilitate them and ignore the messages they are getting from the other candidates and support your candidate?

Self: In many ways the internet is perfectly focussed for talking to voters. This is something we've seen across the political spectrum – you know, you can provide information directly to voters through video content, through emails, through text messaging... you can talk to voters directly without being filtered through all these other traditional sources – whether they be the media, pundits or the super-informed electorate. So being able to send messages directly to voters with the candidate talking directly to you, saying what they believe – being able to respond immediately to smears – whether it's about being a particular religion or birth certificates or anything like that you can respond immediately online, you ccan buy online ads and point them at the site that debunks the myth – it really takes a lot of this smear techniques and throws them out the window.

Iowa is obviously a very special state in the American political process that involves a lot of hard on the ground organizing, but being able to provide those organizers who are dealing with voters on a day to day basis, and be able to talk to every caucus-goer in Iowa, to be able to talk to them using the internet and to be able to provide this information to them was a huge win. Another one was bring new caucus-goers to the event – getting people passionate about this candidate, bring people into that – many times using the internet- - but finding those people, registering those people – these are all things that contributed to the phenomenal success.

Barron: One of the other pieces of conventional wisdom in Iowa is that if they haven't voted in a caucus before they aren't going to vote this time – Howard Dean found that out... how did you help in that "Getting Out The Vote Effort" (for Obama)?

Self: You know I think that the online is obviously contributed to that, but much of this was due to the phenomenal success of the field campaign Obama had. When you get down to that day and how in states like Iowa, the ability to talk to every voter, and you have this huge effort there – this huge volunteer base – in some cases it's just about making sure that field organization works – giving them the tools to make them work better. Better examples are when you can't deal with every single person in the state and you move to much bigger states or when you have a Super Tuesday where you have half the states going on the same day or you have a general election – those are when you can't give the same resources to every single state out there, and yet we saw in states like Indiana and Virginia, that have not traditionally voted Democratic in the past – that we were able to motivate hundreds and thousands of first-time voters. And part of that is talking to them, building that relationship online so they remember that it is important for them to vote and that it can actually make a difference.

Barron: Is there a view when you still have maybe three or four viable candidates seeking the nomination at that early stage – is it that you want to be the last name that voters hear before they go to the polling station – when you know they are going to get five calls from Hillary and the Edwards and Richardson campaigns – how do you make sure you keep them as a supporter right up until the moment they get to the ballot box.

Self: You have to talk to them, and by that stage many of them are having contact-fatigue because so many people are talking to them – but at some point it's just about tracking them – knowing when you contacted them last and what you talked to them about, knowing what they are interested in – whether it's healthcare or veterans issues – making sure you keep that information attached to the voters rolls so you know where they are supposed to vote, where they live and you know now the issues that they care about and the candidate they prefer – then talking to them based on that information so they don't you've forgotten about them and every time you aren't starting off from scratch.

Barron: Looking back on the (2008) Iowa Caucus – President Obama, (campaign manager) David Plouffe now say that was the key – winning Iowa they key to defeating Hillary Clinton for the nomination and it all started there – was there a sense after all the planning, all of the planning online of, "oh there are real people there and it's really happening"?

Self: Yeah, it was clear that it was a magical night in many ways and that it was the start of it and proof that these techniques {we'd} been talking about and theorizing about could actually work - and so in many ways it was a validation that many of these techniques that had been just in theory – so it made it more real without a doubt.

Barron: Just a few days later of course there was the New Hampshire primary and there were expectations that this would be two-from-two and Senator Obama would have the nomination. He didn't win New Hampshire – was that because external factors or was that because you did something in New Hampshire that was different to what had been done in Iowa?

Self: You know it's a good question... I think it shows that just because you had these tools and technologies that those aren't the keys to success. The same technologies that were in Iowa, they were in New Hampshire, they were in all of the primary states. And so it really shows that the tools are a contributor to the success, but are not a silver bullet. You still have to talk to the voters in the right way, you still have to connect to those voters in the right way and there are many external factors that contribute as well.

Barron: You also had as a client the (New Mexico Governor Bill) Richardson campaign – and Bill Richardson was a candidate, well credentialed, great CV, very good retail politician – how would you account for the difference in comparable success in fundraising and support-raising between the two (Richardson and Obama)?

Ben Self Obama campaignSelf: At the end of the day President Obama – then Senator Obama – had a message that appealed to supporters in a very different way. It appealed to the individuals out there – in some ways Richardson was more of an insider-candidate – he was a sitting governor, head of the governor's association and a name known to many people – as you said – but the Obama campaign came to us very early on and said "we want to run this campaign very differently, we want to engage people, make them part of the campaign, bringing them together"- and that was different to the Richardson campaign which wanted to use the same tools but to support a different type of campaign.

Barron: Was the Obama campaign at any stage concerned that if you let the lunatics take over the asylum – if they start blogging and posting and sharing videos – you can't control what they are going to say and do?

Self: Sure – this is a very common concern from any of our campaigns – Obama included – that if we open up the gates we can't control who comes is. And it's true, you often times do get groups out there that participate that you are uncomfortable with – whether they are hate-groups or people who don't share the same values as the candidate, and there are times when you have to say "? I appreciate you want to be part of this campaign but there is no room in the campaign for derogatory and hateful language". And so you do have to do some monitoring and tracking of that, but because you've empowered the community they also do a lot of that themselves – so to an extent it's a self-fixing problem. But the benefits you gain from bring those people in and engaging people far, far outweigh the problems that you have to deal with by opening the doors and bring people in.

The Obama campaign allowed anyone who wanted to come to their website, put in their name, put in their address and it would give them the 25 closest voters for them who were targets for the campaign – these were the real targets they weren't fake people – and sure maybe some people went and downloaded those names and used them for something that was not to benefit the campaign. But because they were able to do that they were able to talk to millions and millions of voters – even on the last weekend – and had you not opened it up they would never have been talked to.

Barron: We were at a phone bank at someone's apartment in Chelsea two days before the New York (Democratic) primary – that seemed to be an example of where you have 25 strangers in a room who never met before but they had been organised and were making calls on their cell phones, accessing a database online – talk us through that process that took place in thousands of locations...

Self: In the states that were not targeted states like New York (where Hillary was expected to win, and did) you can either send those people to a targeted state to knock on doors – and there are some people who will do that. But there are some people who can't travel for whatever reason so you need to give them a meaningful action to take – phones calls are the obvious one. You can call voters and it is statistically proven that it makes a difference because in the United States we don't have compulsory voting and so getting them to the polls is a key component of any election strategy.

People could post a "calling event" on the website and say "come to my apartment between these hours, we'll have computers for people to use and we're going to make phone calls together."And other people can go out and search for events in their area and reach out to people – and suddenly you've got people in a room together working for a candidate that they're all passionate about. And then once they get together they can download names to talk to the voters directly, they can use Vote Builder – which is the DNC (Democratic National Committee)'s national voter database to pull down large lists of that, particularly if they are associated with a large field office – and so this distribution of the data allowed for massive amounts of voter contact.

There were 60-million voter contacts made by the Obama campaign – I believe the RNC (Republican National Committee)'s number is twenty-thirty million – and so it was more than double, because they distributed and were able to mobilize thousands of volunteers.

Barron: Do you put that level of motivation down to – given that Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama (stood for the same things) – universal healthcare – yes, education – we'll spend money, war in Iraq – gotta end it – I mean policy differences weren't what the nomination was about – so what are people deciding on?

Self: I think in many ways people were deciding or choosing Obama because he did represent change, he did represent a different kind of politics, because he didn't want to be beholding to lobbyists – and so those things resonated in a different way. And so it did come down to minor differences among the Democratic candidates – differences in the ways they ran their campaigns, but differences in the overall themes of the campaigns as well, and clearly the Obama campaign tapped into something that appealed to large numbers of voters.

Barron: The amount of money he raised took a lot of people by surprise – certainly the Clinton campaign was surprised when you were making $50-million a month... what are the mechanics of that - getting the money from people's credit cards then spending it on television ads or wherever it goes?

Self: Part of it is just techniques of good campaigning online – being transparent about where the money goes while be accountable to them and engaging with folks in a reasonable way. But you know the big fundraising thing for any campaign is their email list – and how you grow that email list is critical to your fundraising success. The Obama email list ended up at over 13-million people – which is the largest list ever for any political campaign. So lowering the barriers to entry so you get those people involved early, get those people committed, get their email address, asking them to take action time and time again, show them why their actions make a difference, and then there are all sorts of tips and tricks – a good example is the grassroots-match software that we used. There is a traditional fundraising technique in American politics where you send a piece of direct mail who says we've got a wealthy donor who says he's prepared to donate five dollars for every dollar you give. So your contributions will be quadrupled for everything.

Which is fine but we said we're not sure people actually believe this – it feels kind of fake, it feels contrived – so let's flip that on its head and email our existing donor base and say "hey, will you pledge to give ten more dollars if we can bring another donor into the campaign?"And one we do that we get a list of people who have made this pledge and will go out and email any non-donors and say, "we've got people who have pledged they will give $10 if you give right now".

And then these people give, they are immediately matched with another person, they exchange a note back and forth automatically and suddenly it feels very real and very true. It's because you are being very honest with people – and this led people to pledge again and give again and pledge again and give again – multiple donations from individuals skyrocketed because of tools like that.

Barron: There was the perception of millions of people giving ten or even five dollars out of every pay check – some opponents of now-President Obama say "well, yeah – they are they the ones they want you to see – but you've got traditional sources, bundlers getting together a quarter of a million dollars in their law firm. From your perspective what is the truth of that – where was the money coming from?

Self: Online there was over $500-million raised of the $770-million raised for the entire campaign – that was raised from more than 3.2-million donors who gave on average under $100 a piece – so to me that sounds like true campaign finance reform. When you have a bunch of people who are giving those small amounts I don't see how you can compare it to someone like the McCain campaign who was maxing out lobbyists and other groups like that.

Barron: One of the criticisms of campaign finance and the way that it works in the United States is that if somebody does bundle together a quarter of a million dollars while they don't "buy" you, the buy access to you – how does that dynamic work when you now have three million Americans who in a way feel as though they bought a small piece of you?

Self: Sure, clearly you have a president who is accountable to those three, four, five million people. If he were to begin doing things that were to disenfranchise those individuals he'll have no support with which to run his next election campaign – and so in some ways yes they have bought influence, it's not really the access that they want it's the influence. So he's not going to meet with three million people - that's just not possible, but that influence is there no matter what, it's got to be on the minds of anyone working in the administration.

Barron: Do you think there has been a significant shift in how American elections are funded and run or does it very much depend on the candidate that you had that kind of made everything possible?

Self: I think that it will open up the possibility for candidates to fundraise and organise in a similar sort of way – I think there are still going to be candidates who run for office the previous way with big donors bundling large cheques – that's not going to go away anytime soon [because] it is still a working strategy for many, many candidates out there. But I think for Presidential candidates, they are all because of the scale and the amount of money needed, they are going to have to adapt this strategy if they hope to have any sort of success.

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Coming Soon

Joe Trippi

Joe Trippi
Campaign Manager for
Howard Dean '04 and
John Edwards '08