Obama’s Campaign Manager: Door Knocking Works!

Obama’s Campaign Manager: Door Knocking Works!
Kent d Curry

I love to listen to smart people. It doesn’t matter if I agree with them or not, there’s always a special fission that occurs when they interact with a group; sometimes it feels like you can actually see sparks bounding across the room as ideas transmute from mere words.

On Friday, November 20, 2009, I went to hear David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s campaign manager, discuss his book The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory at the St. Louis Count Library’s headquarters branch in St. Louis. He qualifies as smart.

He’s also got a nice sense of humor that was on display as he spoke about the presidential campaign for about 40 minutes before taking questions from an enthusiastic audience of over 300 people, most over the age of 50. He came across as close to a straight shooter as a partisan can be, only occasionally contradicted himself (at one point he said the “wheels fell off’ the McCain campaign with the choice of Sarah Palin, then later said he hopes Palin’s book tour “goes on for three more years.”), and admitted he was taking a break before the campaign in 2012.

He didn’t offer many personal anecdotes about candidate Obama except through the lens of the campaign (After losing New Hampshire, Obama said, and “Maybe this is a good thing.” The competitive Plouffe thought, ‘You are in serious denial.’)

He opened the night saying they knew the 2008 campaign was an “important moment in political history and some might say American history.” However, as soon as you win, a mythology sets in. The day after the election, the New York Times headline read, “Obama Ran Flawless Campaign.” Plouffe laughed, saying it was far from flawless. One reason he wrote this book was to prevent that mythology from becoming fact. He also admitted the book was “too long, too expensive” and filled with banal moments.

He said Obama is enormously self-aware. After losing a state primary, instead of blaming everyone else, he would begin with, “Let me start with myself.” Plouffe said, citing this as one of the reasons the campaign didn’t follow a dusty old playbook. He added, “This book will be a dusty old playbook in four years too, so I hope our opponents study it very closely.”

Throughout the night he offered many intriguing lessons from the campaign that most churches could apply to their own missions.

Leadership Was United

He quoted Obama as saying: “There are no shortcuts. None.” That meant everyone had to work very hard.

He said it was easy for the leadership circle to stick together without leaking dissenting views to the press because they’d been together for so long. This is not “revisionist Kumbaya. We were there for the right reasons. No one started (with this long-shot campaign) to get a job in the West Wing.” As the stakes were raised, they became tighter.

Lesson: Sometimes it’s easier to begin small with a dream instead of well-financed with numerous dreams. Whatever place you’re in, building biblical unity is essential for effective leadership.

Realigning the Playing Field

Plouffe said it wasn’t a national race, but a “complicated puzzle” that required changing the voting electorate if they would have any chance of winning because their candidate’s strengths did not align with the traditional voting public. Obama knew there were too many disenfranchised voters in the United States, but they had to get those non-voters to participate. The campaign didn’t care about the polls, but kept asking themselves, “Is the electorate changing? Everything we did was an electoral college strategy.”

As a result, Plouffe claimed they were rewarded for unconventional decisions almost every time they were made.

He said you must construct a campaign and a message together, with “the web” and “door knocking” as the most effective means of reaching the disenfranchised.

Lesson: I was struck how discredited “door knocking” (Plouffe’s exact phrase) is as an Apostolic witnessing tool, yet the Obama campaign considered it essential in reaching voting “non-believers.” Likewise, seeing the community landscape clearly is more important than what conventional wisdom and tradition tells you about witnessing techniques. It’s essential we understand our spiritual electorate if we’re ever going to disciple them.

The Web is Essential

Via the advice of some of their Silicon Valley advisors, the campaign was told that a web site must be equivalent to the most popular websites in cyberspace (Amazon, CNN, eBay) or visitors will never return.

“The web is where people get their information,” Plouffe said, stating that three million people watched Obama’s “Race Speech” when it was broadcast live from Philadelphia, yet 100 million watched it on the web afterwards.

Lesson: “The web is where people get their information.” This doesn’t sound like news—until you visit most church web sites, where even the big ones are usually not time-sensitive with their updates. While most churches don’t need to announce hourly bulletins, to treat the web as an afterthought is an increasingly dangerous prospect.

Passionate Volunteers are Essential

Plouffe said technology and volunteers were twinned, equally important in the Obama campaign’s success.

Obama insisted on a grass roots campaign, even though there was little participation at the start. Once the volunteers starting growing, the campaign always provided clear goals for them, i.e. the campaign created voter registration goals for each state, so if a volunteer got six people to sign up they knew exactly how they were contributing. He said this also kept morale high.

He repeatedly praised the countless volunteers who ceaselessly gave of their time. Obama said more than once, “I don’t want to let them down”

Plouffe said informed volunteers were essential because that’s who the non-voters asked questions to when the media broadcast charges against candidate Obama. Not that they were without resources. “We built our own TV network” (via the web and cell phones) with a larger audience than NBC and all the cable news combined. This allowed them to bypass the conventional media to get their message out.

Lesson: What are Holy Ghost-filled saints but passionate volunteers? For the success of any endeavor, it’s crucial that national/regional/local religious leadership give those volunteers clear, attainable goals and ample information.

Plouffe added a few thoughts on the past (“It sounds like a lot of money, but you can’t run for president for $85 million anymore.”) before predicting the electoral future, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats lose a couple Senate seats as many as 15 House seats in 2010 because it’s hard to create the Obama surge “atmospherically.”

In all, it was a fascinating night with a man who helped direct our current President to victory. In all, I was surprised at how easily the lessons he lived for two years applied to easy lessons for churches to absorb and apply for spiritual ends. May we all be as successful as he was in 2008?

ninetyandnine.com © 2009, Kent d Curry

Kent d Curry haunts lecture halls and used bookstores in search of the unusual.
Passionate Volunteers Are Essential
Plouffe said technology and volunteers were twinned, equally important in the Obama campaign’s success.

The article “Obama’s Campaign Manager: Door Knocking Works!” written by Kent d Curry was excerpted from www.ninetyandnine.com, 2009.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”