TIME 2014 Election

Obama Digital Guru to Democrats: Stop Being Lame

Joe Rospars founding partner of Blue State Digital who was a director for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for President of the United States, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press during Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona on Nov. 21, 2009.
Manu Fernandez—AP Joe Rospars founding partner of Blue State Digital who was a director for Barack Obama's 2008 campaign for President of the United States, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press during Personal Democracy Forum Europe in Barcelona on Nov. 21, 2009.

Joe Rospars is Founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for both of Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. He got his start as a writer on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, over a decade ago.

The emails and campaign ads of this year's election have exposed a "creative crisis in the Democratic Party"

“With a frequency and desperation matched only by a Nigerian prince selling a Groupon deal for boner pills, the Democrats and the emails will not stop trying to make you give them money.” That’s how Jon Stewart described Democratic efforts to raise small-dollar contributions ahead of next week’s midterm elections. And he wasn’t far off.

The emails are the new punching bag for critics, but their critique is fundamentally the same one that many have about the avalanche of thirty-second television commercials: a lack of creative integrity and a palpable disrespect for the audience. Taken together, the complainers about both kinds of content identify what amounts to a creative crisis in the Democratic Party. And no matter what happens on Tuesday night, we will wake up Wednesday morning needing to confront it.

As an emeritus practitioner of Democratic campaign emailing, having overseen the online fundraising first for Howard Dean and then both of Barack Obama’s campaigns, I find myself conflicted about the deluge in my inbox. My first instinct is to defend the barrage, because I vastly prefer a political party and candidates funded by a no-stone-unturned approach to generating small donations from ordinary people to the alternative. You don’t hear the same kind of frustration at Republican fundraising emails for a simple reason: they don’t send as many, because the Republican Party relies far less on ordinary people contributing to their campaigns.

But no one wants to be treated like they’re stupid. That means people producing both types of content are missing opportunities for potential persuasion and engagement—and creating more cynicism in politics along the way. Many in both the TV and mass email industries will tell you that they’re getting important communication done with their TV ads and emails, and that the complaints are just a cost of doing business.

And part of the increased complaints surely do result from the sheer volume of both types of content. More big money in politics means more TV ads on more channels than ever. And with better data analytics driving ever more precise airtime-buying strategies, you won’t just see ads on the local news. If you’re a targeted voter, the ads will find you watching “Top Chef” reruns or the History Channel. But they are still likely to be the nearly-campy, scary, negative ads with fake-torn newspaper headlines and grave voiceover. Or the old standby of a candidate in a business suit speaking meaningless words earnestly into the camera.

Similarly, the ability to deliver email to supporters has become more mechanized. In 2004, for the Dean campaign to send email to all of its 500,000 supporters, it required technical staff to create the recipient list and build the message in HTML, and then it took 12 hours for all the emails to be delivered after hitting the “send” button. Today, my own company and others provide the ability for campaigns and organizations to have non-technical staff build endless, personalized variations of email to multiple segments of their supporter list, which after hitting “send” get delivered at the rate of more than 20 million an hour.

But while you may be able to get something accomplished through sheer volume of terrible content, people are tuning out and getting angry at the content based on something more than volume.

The truth is that the increase in volume—in particular the ability to segment and deliver more personalized communications—has in many cases eclipsed the creative capacity of the usual players and their organizations. More and better resources need to be devoted to not just shoveling ever more content out the door and hoping for the best, but accounting for the quality, veracity, and cohesiveness of the content. The Democrats should be a party that not only takes pride in winning, which of course comes first, but also seeks to win with a lasting ability to take pride in the work.

The Obama campaigns built the biggest grassroots fundraising base in political history, in part through relentless testing and optimization. Our staff would dream up endless variations and approaches to inspiring someone to click and donate. But we didn’t just throw anything at the wall to see what stuck; there was a creative filter applied to all that experimentation. That is, our success was driven by tactical innovation that happened within the confines of the kind of organization we wanted to be and the kind of relationship we sought to build with our supporters.

From what we see in this midterm cycle, that model is by no means a given for the candidates and campaigns that come after. The 2016 campaigns will be the front line of determining what kind of party and movement we’re going to be. And those 2016 candidates will face decisions about what kind of campaign they want to have—whether they’ll embrace the cheap, the misleading, the disingenuous, or whether they’ll aspire to do something better.

I feel obliged to note that, for my part, as someone who came up doing the digital work, I see the emails as the lesser evil. The carpet-bombing of terrible TV ads is the single biggest driver of the endless money-for-influence machine in politics. At least the email scoundrels are raising money, and doing it the right way, rather than spending it.

And I want to be clear not to let the Republicans off the hook here. The GOP’s content isn’t any less annoying, disingenuous or over the top—it is often far worse, and has even more serious consequences. The race-baiting TV ads are in full force, and some of the most reprehensible language you’ll see used in public by the right surfaces in their campaign emails. They get away with it because there just aren’t very many people on those lists.

It’s also important to note that despite all the noise on both sides, you can see glimmers of great content out there. Take Senator Al Franken’s emails—a delightful mix of holiday recipes from the Franken household and a human, thoughtful approach to engaging his supporters on the nuts and bolts of campaigns (a recent appeal promised frugality: “Pizza for our volunteers? Sure. But minimal toppings.”). Over time, I suspect that the churn-and-burn approach to online fundraising will be bested by the respectful, playful, urgent approach of organizations like Franken’s. Short of Franken moonlighting as Creative Director for his fellow Democratic Senators, though, the path ahead for the Democrats will be difficult. The overdrive of the social-media news cycle will pull campaigns and organizations toward more content, rather than better content.

Meanwhile, the relentless arms race of TV ads and the ratcheting up of fundraising targets to fund them puts the front-line producers of content in a terrible position. Almost anyone you speak to who makes their living cutting an ad or producing an email would prefer that things were different, but they’re working around the clock and barely keeping up. They just want to get through the cycle and help the good guys win.

So in 2016 it will be up to candidates and campaign managers to fight the madness and put the resources in place to create more compelling messages on TV and the web than ever before. Resources alone won’t be enough, though. The campaigns will need the right leadership and structure in place with the creative chops, political judgment and frankness to enforce a commitment to a single, overriding content priority: Don’t Be Lame.

Joe Rospars is Founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for Obama for America in 2008 and 2012.



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TIME politics

How Howard Dean’s Scream Helped Obama Land the Presidency

Democratic Gain & Rock The Vote Host Jump Off
Jamie McCarthy—WireImage Governor Howard Dean during Democratic Gain & Rock The Vote Host "Jump Off" at Avalon Nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts, United States.

His 2004 campaign was the first truly digital one, but supporters' energy overwhelmed the organizers' capacity to use it effectively. We've learned a lot since then.

When former Vermont governor Howard Dean announced his long-shot campaign for President 11 years ago, he changed the way campaigns work.

And though he didn’t win, without Dean, the next Democratic campaign—the one that elected Barack Obama—would have looked very different. Now, with 2016 on the horizon and the evolving role of big money threatening to permanently relegate ordinary people to mere window dressing in our political process, the Dean effort offers an important lesson to anyone who cares about the future of our democracy.

When I tell people I worked for Howard Dean’s presidential run, they often seem proud to know a bit about a campaign that has mostly been relegated to trivia: “That’s the guy who lost because of the scream, right?”

The truth is that Dean had already come in a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses that day, before the scream happened. So we were most likely already done.

But the Dean campaign did not lack for passionate and widespread support. He led national polls heading into Iowa, and built the biggest lists of offline volunteers and online donors in the field. It was the first campaign of the digital era that truly opened itself up to collaboration: to bloggers, to software developers, to volunteers creating their own groups online and offline in communities across the country. And because of the candidate’s willingness to say things that other candidates wouldn’t, even if they agreed—that the war in Iraq was a bad idea, that every American should have health insurance, that the politics of fear and division and mealy-mouthed calculation do a disservice to our political process—people joined.

So, what happened? Put very simply, the campaign organization—we, the staff—let these people down. Those grassroots supporters did what they were supposed to do: they recruited their friends, donated $5 and $10 where they could and showed up to volunteer where we asked, when we asked. But the energy of those people overwhelmed the campaign’s capacity to use it effectively. The campaign organization failed to connect that money and those efforts to the mechanics of winning in Iowa—or anywhere else.

This failure loomed large when, four years later, I was asked to put together a digital strategy for Barack Obama’s improbable campaign for president. I had already seen the glimmer in the eyes of people who hoped he’d run. It would be such a shame for our party, and in a fundamental way disappointing for our democracy, if another campaign with genuine grassroots energy and the possibility of bringing new people into the political process failed to channel it into victory.

It took less than a day on the job to discover that the Obama organization would be different: crisply decisive, metrics-driven and with a clear understanding that building a nationwide grassroots movement very quickly would be its only path to victory. The digital campaign would be at the heart of it, and we built something bigger and better than we could have imagined back in Burlington. And there were other Dean veterans like me who went into the Obama campaign with something to prove, like Jeremy Bird, who built a grassroots field organization in South Carolina during the primary based on the notion of community organizing—something he and the Dean team had piloted in New Hampshire in 2004 in one of the too-few pockets of promise. Their work became irrelevant after the catastrophe in Iowa dug a hole too deep.

The Dean campaign was a wake-up call for me about the importance of disciplined organization in our political process, and a reminder that narratives about what’s happening in an election can be upturned at any time by organizational realities and the flawed human beings who make decisions (or don’t) in the heat of a campaign.

The job of the campaign staff is to shape the limited time and activity of both the candidate and his or her supporters into a unified effort that drives a win.

It’s tempting to think of the candidate as the CEO of a campaign, but the responsibility for making the pieces of a campaign work falls to the staff. This is as it should be; it’s depressing to think of skilled political campaign management as a prerequisite for our elected leaders. A great campaign is one that channels the candidate’s best attributes and honors the time and money of those willing to give it to the cause.

In that sense, we let down Howard Dean, too. But he kept going: he took the thankless job of party chairman and doggedly pursued a 50-state strategy that opened up the institution to grassroots organizing, made data and infrastructure a top priority and put small donations back at the core, re-energizing the party in unlikely places and laying the foundation for the Democratic midterm sweep in 2006 and, of course, 2008.

Even beyond that record, the candidate himself remains an inspiration for the same reasons I went to work for him a decade ago: unwavering authenticity, persistent indignation and a willingness to run a campaign like you’ve got nothing to lose.

I wish we could have given him a win. But I know I and many others—perhaps even Dean himself—were shaped and sharpened by that loss, and in that way his campaign for president has done more good for our side than any of us could have imagined a decade ago.

Joe Rospars is Co-founder & CEO of Blue State Digital and was the principal digital strategist for both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. He got his start as a writer on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, over a decade ago.

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