The Gurus | Internet Strategists

Meet the OPOs

(By Jason Reed -- Reuters)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Howard Dean's cometlike campaign in 2003 was the first to integrate the Internet into a presidential race, and Joe Rospars was there, a 22-year-old working as an "all-around Web guy" until the campaign suddenly collapsed.

Four years later, it's not just the upstarts, as Dean was, who have embraced online campaigning. And Rospars is part of a new generation of strategists who share a passionate belief that they can transform not just individual campaigns but also politics itself.

Rospars, 26, today runs a staff of 11 at the Chicago headquarters of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Mathew Gross, 35, who blogged for Dean a few desks away from Rospars, serves as chief online strategist for Democrat John Edwards in Chapel Hill, N.C. Mindy Finn, 26, a veteran of the 2004 Bush campaign, does the same for Republican Mitt Romney in Boston. Every campaign has someone similar -- young, tech-savvy and committed to the transforming possibilities of the Internet.

For these online political operatives -- or OPOs, as a few have taken to calling themselves -- the Internet isn't just a tool. It's a strategy, a whole new way of campaigning, a form of communication, from blogs to MySpace to YouTube, with far more potential than the old media of print and television. "TV is a passive experience, and the Internet is all about interactivity, all about making a direct connection," said Rospars, waxing expansive in the way all the OPOs tend to do.

Yet if it's understood that the Internet has a role to play in the 2008 presidential campaign -- voters are increasingly going online to find out more about the candidates, donate money and join networking sites, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project -- it's not yet clear how large the role of the OPOs will be. And the struggle between them and more traditional campaign operatives for influence over their candidates is likely to be a subtext at every headquarters, Republican and Democratic, in the next year and a half.

For the people who run campaigns, most of whom grew up in the analog world, the Internet is another tool, a new piece of technology. "Don't get me wrong," said David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager and Rospars's boss, "the Internet is a powerful organizing and fundraising tool, and it's getting more and more important every day, but it's still not the persuasion and message tool that TV is."

It is a formulation familiar to Andrew Rasiej, a Democratic online strategist and co-founder of TechPresident, a bipartisan group blog that tracks online campaigning. "Every campaign will tell you that they get the Web, that they understand its power," he said. "But you have to look at where the power lies. How much influence do their online people have? Not much right now. Fact is, most campaigns, on both sides of the political aisle, think that the Internet is just a slice of the pie. They don't realize it's actually the pan."

And for many online campaign workers toiling in communications departments, absent from the daily conference calls and senior staff meetings, there's an overriding concern.

"They're treating me like a mascot," said one online director, who has complained to the close-knit group of online strategists that he is not getting the necessary staffing and money to do his job. "Like it's enough that they hired an Internet guy and that's it."

The Evolution of E-Campaigning

In many ways, the roots of online political campaigning can be traced back to Joe Trippi's office.

Trippi, 51, who was Dean's campaign manager, gets much of the credit for introducing the Internet to presidential campaigning. After building an online team at Dean's Vermont headquarters, Trippi leveraged the Web to raise $7.6 million in the second quarter of 2003, a stunning figure for a candidate without a traditional fundraising network.

Trippi placed his Internet team right outside his door, within throwing distance of crumpled balls of paper. Before anyone in the campaign got through to him, they had to face Gross, the campaign's blogger in chief. It wasn't at all rare to hear Trippi yell, "Mat, get in here!"

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