How Leadership & Organization Propelled Obama 2008

A Campaign Without Borders

I recently gave a talk in Old Town Alexandria that I call, "Leadership Lessons from the Campaign Trail."  Against the backdrop of my experience as the 2008 COO at Obama for America, I discussed the management takeaways that the executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators in my audiences typically find compelling.  Giving these talks is just about the coolest thing I do lately.  One reason I enjoy them so much is that I get to debunk two of the most common myths about why we won. 

Myth #1:  Our success was primarily the result of having had an unusually gifted front man.  I disagree.  Candidates don't win elections.  You win with leadership and organization.  George W. Bush wasn't terribly impressive on the stump but his operation was crisp and he was consistent.  Hillary Clinton was about as tough a competitor as you will ever see on the campaign trail but her organization was uneven.  And this isn't to take anything away from our guy.  Barack Obama was a truly talented candidate, even if he struggled to get his campaign legs in the earliest days.  However, it was his competence from the outset as a CEO that was the real game changer.  Long before we ever got to Iowa, his organization had consistently proven its prowess in fundraising, field, and online savvy.  This gets me to the second misperception about why we won. 

Myth #2:  Obama for America was better at using technology than the other campaigns.  I hear it all the time.  Sorry, technology supremacy doesn't win elections either.  If it did, then John McCain would have been elected president in 2000 and Howard Dean after that, in 2004.  I'm not being uncharitable to my old friends, innovation gurus Joe Rospars, Chris Hughes, and Michael Slaby.  Those guys did a brilliant job.  But under their leadership, our digital and technology teams did something far more momentous than simply outperform the competition in the technology race.  They forever changed the electoral landscape by eliminating the longstanding physical boundaries that had previously tethered supporters and constrained their involvement. 

It used to be that when the primary elections were over and local headquarters were closed, neighborhood volunteers had to wait for the general election to fire up before they could reengage--after the "campaign" returned and offices were again opened.  If you lived in Iowa, for example, that might have meant a six-month hiatus. Our talented staff created an online space for politics that allowed people to stay seamlessly connected 24/7 for the entirety of the election.  More importantly, they made it so that with a computer and a cell phone you could transform your kitchen table into a phone bank.  Names, numbers, and a calling script were just a click away, making it possible to dial prospective supporters anywhere in the country at any time. No office or precinct organizer required. Just as iTunes rendered music stores unnecessary and Amazon transformed the book selling industry, Joe, Chris, Michael, and company ushered in a new era of campaigns without borders. 

That's the truly revolutionary innovation here.  And it's just one example among many of how we won our election with leadership and organization.





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