The Internet was largely responsible for the election of Barack Obama in 2008 because Hillary Clinton missed its campaign potential, Steve Jobs didn’t think highly of political strategists, and the President connects to the online world a lot more often than people think.
These and other tidbits were offered by David Axelrod, President Obama’s chief campaign strategist and the man considered to be primarily responsible for the former law professor’s meteoric rise from state legislator to the White House, during a 90 minute appearance at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California yesterday.
“Without the Internet, there’s no President Obama,” said Axelrod.
The former top White House advisor, who is traveling the country to promote his new book – “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics” – told the Silicon Valley gathering that through social media, the Obama campaign was able to raise a record amount ($25 million) in just three months and “create a movement that could be amplified” by people who had not been politically involved before.
During his onstage interview with museum CEO John Hollar, Axelrod was asked if Hillary Clinton’s campaign missed the growing power and potential of the Internet to galvanize voters during the Democratic primaries in 2008.
“Yes, I think they may have missed it,” said Axelrod. “But so did everybody else.”
The President’s most senior advisor, whose desk during the first two years of the Obama administration was mere steps from the Oval Office, told the audience that he believes Clinton will be the likely Democratic nominee in 2016.
The Internet also played a key role in Obama’s successful re-election in 2012. Axelrod described how his campaign operation included 54 data analysts (referred to inside the campaign as “the mushrooms”) who worked around the clock out of a large, dark room in Chicago to develop profiles of 35 million voters spread among the election’s key “battleground” states.
Through data mining and detailed Internet research, Obama’s campaign was able to target the marginal voters they needed to win a closely-fought election over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. “We developed software tools that had never been used before,” said Axelrod.
Axelrod also indicated that President Obama stays connected to the online world on an iPad, eagerly reading “obscure blogs and voting results.” The senior adviser recounted a story from the 2012 campaign when the President made a disastrous showing in his first debate with Romney. While Axelrod was, as he put it, “trying to spin the unspinable” with the political media right after the debate’s conclusion, President Obama was sequestered in a separate room, rapidly scanning online commentary using his tablet computer. By the time Axelrod re-joined his boss, Obama had put away his iPad and told his counselor what the rest of the world already knew.
During his Silicon Valley appearance, Axelrod also commented on a story included in his new book about interacting with Apple founder Steve Jobs. According to Axelrod, when Obama asked him to call the Valley legend early in 2008, Job’s first words were a demand that Axelrod explain his role in the campaign. Before the chief strategist could finish, Jobs made profane, disparaging remarks about Axelrod’s profession and hung up.
“That was my brush with greatness,” said Axelrod ruefully.
However, when Obama’s campaign caught fire that year with an iconic poster of the candidate’s image above the word “Hope,” Axelrod’s later interaction with Jobs, who always appreciated good branding, was noticeably friendlier. “He became more receptive to what I had to say,” recalled Axelrod.
Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential race, Axelrod said he expected that campaigns will be aggressively targeting smartphones with individually tailored messages for potential voters. He also bemoaned the amounts of money that are expected to pour into candidates, much of which will come from hidden sources.
Axelrod’s own personal history followed an unusual path. His first career as a journalist in Chicago gave him an appreciation for the rough and tumble world of the city’s politics. He left his work as a reporter to run a successful campaign for Illinois Senator Paul Simon and was sought by Bill Clinton’s staff in 1992 to be their communications director.
But Axelrod feared the impact that a Presidential race would have on his wife and young children, so he passed up his first opportunity to lead a successful race for the White House. He got to know Barack Obama in 2002 and the rest is history.
Near the end of his appearance yesterday, Axelrod told the audience about his brief conversation with outgoing President George W. Bush just before Obama was sworn in for his first term. As Axelrod recalled it, Bush put his hand on his shoulder and told him, “Just hang on because this is going to be the ride of your life.” The roller coaster finally pulled in to Silicon Valley yesterday and David Axelrod had quite a story to tell.