rf memo; Campaign Culture

Roger Fisk
6 min readDec 27, 2018

rf memo Vol 1; Culture

To: Candidates Running in 2020

From: Roger Fisk

Date: December 2018

RE: Campaign Culture

The purpose of this memo is to demonstrate the importance of making very specific decisions about the culture that will define your campaign. If you do this part right then field, fundraising, digital and messaging, just to name a few, will flow from it, reinforce it, and maybe, just maybe, usher it to victory.

Get this part wrong and you won’t have to worry about South Carolina.

To make my point we need to jump into the Way Back Machine. By late 2007 I had already worked in 25 states as Director of Special Events for the Obama campaign. A high school principal and I walked up a shiny hallway with gleaming walls of lockers on our left and right. Behind us were members of my team; a nomadic, shambolic crew living off wits, optimism and junk food, and members of his team; earnest public school teachers and staff who were all chatting about the last campaign to visit this well-trafficked, early primary state high school.

That last visit happened to be our main rival.

This was our second day at the school and this stroll was probably the fourth logistical step in planning for Senator Barack Obama to visit this voter rich region in a few days. I had just asked the principal how the other campaign’s visit went when the young principal turned to me, saying, “You know what the difference between you guys is?”

By guys he meant the two leading campaigns battling for the Democratic nomination in 2008.

My ears perked up. “I have my theory but what is yours?”

“You guys ask me, they would tell me.” A couple of his colleagues nodded and crinkled their noses.

Boom; overall campaign dynamic distilled. Not only distilled, but he captured it more accurately than anything produced by the pundit aristocracy.

A campaign that asks reflects a humble, hungry culture, running a bottom-up campaign that is devoid of any sense of entitlement. A premium is on remaining nimble, courteous, respectful and considerate, and all of this emanates from the principal. When you are building you need every brick.

A campaign that tells is top-down, it is speaking before listening, it is not asking because you already have the answer, and overall it creates a sensation of the campaign happening to people rather than building it in a way that makes it something they own. With a brand already built, our opponents were protecting and preserving front runner status rather than building. They didn’t need more bricks and their organization reflected that.

Why is this relatively obscure anecdote relevant to people planning to run in 2020?

Well, good news and bad news.

Bad News; at this and every stage of the campaign you will be surrounded by countless factors you cannot control; the economy, natural disasters, global crisis.

Good News; one of the most important things at this stage is also one of the only things you can control; deciding on a campaign culture then building an organization that embodies that culture.

The Obama campaign based itself on the simple idea of empowering individuals, through on-line tools, organizing principles and old-school door-to-door work, and we empowered them in a way that personalized their connection to the campaign.

mybarackobama.com gave people an tool that allowed them to organize people already in their lives, be they neighbors or fellow teachers or nurses around the country. You think we should be doing more with small businesses or the environment? Here’s a tool you can use to go do that. Not us, the campaign, but YOU. Up until then presidential campaigns’ web presences were one way streets, 20th century devices that basically said “here’s what we think” and left the reader or volunteer in a client posture of receiving and responding. Our web presence said “what do you think?” and provided tools so every individual was not just a potential supporter but actually a latent organizer.

The center of gravity was the individual, not the campaign.

A mobile example; we had a slogan amongst us early Obama Road Warriors; “Winning Voters One at a Time,” meaning each diner, each person at the cash register of a gas station or lunch kiosk, was an opportunity to reach people and communicate that we needed them. Not only was this good manners, but we started with so little we did not have the luxury of leaving anyone out.

Another example albeit somewhat flipped on its head; we charged people for stickers and lawn signs. Whereas campaigns used to hand these out like candy, or assign them to people for display in their yard, we installed a more immediate hurdle to this most elemental of swag. Charging a dollar required more from the individual to take that leap. But once taken, we found very little could shake them loose.

Here are a couple examples of campaign culture fails;

Years ago I went back to my home state of Massachusetts to help Martha Coakley once news got to DC that she was in trouble in the special election to fill Senator Kennedy’s seat. One day I did a Town Hall style event in Revere where I arrived a couple hours early and spent time with the Legion Post staff, then soon the State Rep and other local luminaries. We were setting up a local-feeling event for the immediate impact in that coastal city but also planning to grab the footage for a final ad. I set up the room so the shots would have depth and energy, with people around her and choreographing her entry and exit. Very Iowa. Then the door burst open. It was a young guy in a suit, and I assumed it was her staff. He brushed past me, he brushed past the State Rep and the veterans post staff, and started moving things around and barking at volunteers. No introductions, no self-awareness that he is in someone’s workplace, no manners, no outreach, no building. In my head it quietly and simply clicked right then, “She is going to lose.”

Late 2003 I was in the slushy parking lot of a New Hampshire TV station after Mrs. Heinz, John Kerry’s wife, had done a couple long days across the state while the Senator focused on Iowa. As we loaded up, a van pulled towards us and John Edwards popped out to say hello to Teresa. Two vans with headlights on facing each other in a dark parking lot like some Coen brothers drug deal. His staff got out, and I looked at his aides in suits and loafers as they stood in a couple inches of slush, and right then it clicked; these guys are going to lose. Their culture never acclimated to the rhythm and pace and feel of an early state. Loafers+ slush =losing NH.

A core set of values should drive the organization and they should be clear, explicit, and real. They should guide how you on-board new employees, how you train volunteers, how you position your on-line tools, and what your expectations are for the staff and volunteers alike.

Looking at this through the hiring lens, specific attention should be paid to the Why; Why are people interested in joining your campaign, Why do they think your candidate is the best step forward for America, Why do they care so much about our democracy and this candidacy. Then the on-boarding process, for staff and volunteers, needs to hammer home those organizational values and culture.

A successful campaign results in a seamless arch or spectrum, meaning that a conversation with a volunteer, an opened email, a radio ad and seeing the candidate in person should all be part of a cohesive whole rather than scattered good intentions. The campaign culture is the connective tissue. This resulted in Barack saying “our campaign is not about my ability to change America, it’s about yours,” and having that be true on every level, from our on-line tools to how we worked with that early state high school principal.

These decisions join a meager list of things you can control at this point in the cycle, which means right about now is the perfect time to decide how the faces of those public school employees faces will react when your campaign is brought up in conversation. A sincere, humble, energetic and polite culture will bring a smile to that principal’s face and votes will follow.

Get this part wrong and your name will not be on one of the 3 tickets out of Iowa. Get this part right and you *might* have the luxury of worrying about South Carolina.