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David Talbot

A View from David Talbot

The Campaign Goes On

In a first, Obama deployes his massive campaign email list toward a legislative goal

  • February 13, 2009

Candidate Barack Obama built up something unique in its scale and power: a 13 million-strong email list of supporters, together with data on their beliefs and history of campaign volunteerism.

As the presidential campaign progressed, his staff proved adept at dispatching specific and geographically targeted instructions to the masses: “Call ten people in Ohio today”, “Donate $5 by midnight and anonymous donor will match it”, “Get out to vote” These were jobs anyone could understand. And the goal was straightforward: get the man elected.

Now we have a president who is trying to mass-email his way to a legislative victory. President Obama–more accurately, his campaign organization, now using the moniker “Organizing for America”–is deploying that list to rallying support for the stimulus package.

But you can almost hear the behind-the-scenes debate: How, exactly, is Lucy in Des Moines supposed to take action on an $800-odd billion stimulus package? What would you have her do–join in an email campaign aimed at nailing a particular Congressman to the wall? And how can we expect Frank in Utica to understand a massive bill whose contents are murky even to the people who are supposed to vote on it? Should we sell him on the fact that the stimulus bill would allow him to deduct the sales tax on his next Ford F-150?

No, the outcome has been a more nebulous campaign. Organizing for America provided a place for people to post their stories of recession angst, and encouraged them to spread their stories around to each other. This morning’s missive from Obama campaign manager David Plouffe explained: “Ordinary people are telling the real story of the struggles and pressures families are facing right now. They drive home the importance of this recovery plan and the need to put it into action immediately.”

The site promises: “As the recovery plan takes shape, we’ll be checking back in with some of those who’ve shared their stories here. They’ll report back on their progress, and on the progress of America’s recovery from this crisis.”

It can hardly be said that any of this has a bearing on the actual legislative process. There are no simple and concrete actions to take, and no way to measure its efficacy. So why bother? For one, it keeps his supporters engaged, if only by giving them a place to vent. And more importantly, the act of story-sharing will mean yet more email address accrue to the Obama organization.

So maybe next time, when Obama pushes his next bill, we’ll see something more focussed. “Frank, remember when Lucy sent you her story of recession woe? Well, here’s a list of ten people to call right now. We need your help nailing Congressman Jones to the wall….”

Hear more about social networks at EmTech MIT 2017.

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