"Our email list had reached 13 million people. We had essentially created our own television network, only better, because we communicated directly with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes we would need to win." — David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win
When Obama 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe likened the campaign's email list to a television network in his campaign memoir, it was a rough analogy. But for the revamped Obama 2012 campaign, the meaning is quite literal. The YouTube and social media revolution of the last four years has given the campaign the power to produce and disseminate powerful video content that it can broadcast to a highly targeted audience of millions, effectively for free.
The choice example is the campaign's 17 minute Hollywood-caliber propaganda piece The Road We've Traveled, which lays out president Obama's accomplishments with all the polish (but none of the skepticism) of a Frontline documentary.
The docuganda casts Obama in heroic terms, a lone man commanding the powers of the presidency to ward off a depression, rescue the auto industry, reform health care, and take out Osama bin Laden. The film is largely in bounds on these facts, but it casts the Obama presidency as a succession of victories — with nary a nod to the administration's laundry list of unmet objectives (cap-and-trade climate regulation, immigration reform, union "card check" voting, etc.), or to the crushing setback of the 2010 mid-terms.
The campaign paid top dollar to produce the film — reports are it cost $354,000 to make — but effectively nothing to put this epic short in front of an audience of nearly 2 million viewers and counting, per YouTube metrics. (By contrast, during the heat of the 2008 campaign season, when the campaign wanted to push out a similar infomercial, it had to buy a half-hour of network prime time TV.) The film continues to be shown as an organizing tool at the houseparties of campaign volunteers, and even at high dollar fundraisers. And it's had enough of an impact, evidently, that Karl Rove felt compelled to thrash it in his column for the Wall Street Journal — "Three dismal years are spun into 17 minutes of fact-challenged campaign film."
The Road We've Traveled is remarkable for its glitz and directorial pedigree — the filmmaker is Oscar winner Davis Guggenheim, who directed Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. But the same media strategy is evident throughout the 2012 campaign. The folks in Chicago have spent next to nothing on television ads. Yet the campaign's digital team — the biggest squad by far in Obama 2012's massive headquarters in a downtown skyscraper — is quietly churning out nearly a video a day, designed to reengage Obama supporters, activate new volunteers, or persuade fence-sitting independents.
The campaign doesn't put out a blast to reporters with every video. Indeed, Obama 2012 sends out few press releases at all. The point is not to leverage traditional media outlets to amplify the campaign's message. The point appears precisely to go around the mainstream media, using social networks and more blunt tools like segments of the campaign's email list to bring unfiltered messages directly to key consituencies.
Check out the campaign's YouTube channel. There's a new video from feminist Gloria Steinem talking up the president's record on women's issues with more than 45,000 views in three days. There's a video from February of the president kicking off African Americans for Obama 2012, with more than 1.5 million views.
Many of the videos try to replicate the campaign's persuasion model of using personal narratives of regular people to animate policy victories that otherwise might make for a boring bullet points on a piece of campaign literature. The campaign touts this video of a charismatic college student with a preexisting medical condition who, thanks to Obamacare, will now be able to stay on her parent's health care plan until she's 26. But for health care alone Chicago has assembled a half-dozen short films designed to highlight Obamacare's major provisions — and it is soliciting more personal stories and even videos from supporters who have been helped by the law.
The best of these narratives might see air time on your television as the campaign progresses. But for the moment these videos are built for social media — to be posted to Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Tumblr accounts.
We're seeing something really new in the history of presidential politics develop out of Chicago. This is a social-media-optimized campaign. And it's not just video: Last Friday the campaign's #ILikeObamaCare hashtag campaign on Twitter — in which tweeps were asked to declare their personal reasons for supporting the law — became the number one trending topic in the country, outpacing Justin Bieber, Hunger Games and National Puppy Day.
All of this direct communication with targeted voters is happening without the advice or consent of the mainstream media, in ways that David Plouffe could scarcely have imagined just four years ago. Meanwhile, the Mitt Romney campaign website looks like it's still trying to catch up to Obama 2008.
Consider the Obama advantage:
Obama: 25.8 million
Romney: 1.5 million
Obama: 13.4 million
Romney: 0.4 million
Obama: ~13 million
Obama (joined yesterday): 7801
Romney (wife Ann's account): 4801