The Legacy of @POTUS - Obama has changed digital campaigning for ever

The end of a presidency is a time for reflection on legacies and Barack Obama's Presidency has spanned the era when digital communications grew up.

Obama tweets. (Image via the White House's Twitter account)
Obama tweets. (Image via the White House's Twitter account)
His political life has tracked these changes. Next week, Obama will become the first sitting president to edit a magazine (fittingly, Wired, the technology monthly).  

His editorial is pensive: "When I came into office, I broke new ground by pecking away at a BlackBerry. 
Today I read my briefings on an iPad and explore national parks through a virtual-reality headset."

As an industry, we have moved beyond a naive interest in clicks, interactions and retweets. 

Any digital agency worth its salt has developed increasingly sophisticated ways to quantify the impact of its campaigns.

Obama was an early adopter of a more sophisticated digital approach, beyond having a Facebook page. He recognised the transformative potential in fostering a broader technological campaigning culture. 

In 2008, he experimented with innovative ways to model his target voters, employing labour-intensive methods to build unparalleled datasets of potential voters likely to be receptive to his candidacy. 

His 2012 run was described by Slate magazine as the ‘Beta’ version of his 2008 effort. 

The launching of Dashboard, Obama’s organising platform, seamlessly linked social media accounts and integrated digital campaigning with the ground operation. 

His two campaigns have been the birthplace of unprecedented advances in areas including fundraising, organising volunteers, refining and targeting messaging. 

Rather than any specific technological advance, perhaps Obama’s most important contribution is to how he integrated digital tools and data science into the fabric of his campaigning culture.

Campaigns are not isolated circuses that pop up around an individual every four years. Where does 2016 fit into this pattern? 

The Democratic campaigns have embraced change as a continuum. Hillary Clinton has not simply dusted off Obama’s old kit and started to run.

One digital agency employed by Clinton, Bully Pulpit Interactive, is a case in point. 

Having spun out of Obama’s 2008 campaign, the agency also worked on his reelection in 2012. 

Many of its senior team are seasoned veterans of successful campaigns, and are tasked with ensuring the trend continues.

Technology has changed what campaigns can do regarding modelling, messaging and targeting since Obama took the stage. 

However, the continuity - of personnel, data collection, and clear party strategy - is a lesson for campaigners and communicators to take from the Democrats’ recent history.

Quietly, conservatives are bullish. 

The Republican party has invested in a shiny new digital, data and analytics headquarters, literally moving the offices from a dusty basement of the Republican National Committee to the heart of the building and heavily investing in a swelling staff list. 

Republicans have made efforts to share data between campaigns in an attempt to better understand their voters. 

Trump, ever the contrarian, has described political data as overrated. But the GOP continues to play catch-up against a powerful Democrat campaigning culture.

Obama recognised technology was not an optional add-on, but a culture to be understood and engaged with by his entire team. 

Effective digital strategy starts with organisational culture. Get that right, and your competitors may be left chasing their own tails.

Jack Barber is an Oxford graduate reporting on the US presidential campaign from Washington DC and the inaugural winner of Hanover Communications’ Mackay Award 

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