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Meet the OPOs
Online Political Operatives, Such as Mindy Finn and Stephen Smith, Want New Media to Send a New Message

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!"

Gross, frustrated with the static nature of Dean's initial Web site -- "Every time I'd go over to the Dean site, nothing was on, and Dean had this blue blazer that made him look like a Century 21 real estate agent," he recalled -- had flown from Moab, Utah, to Burlington, made it past security at Dean headquarters and arrived in Trippi's office with one message: "You need a blog." He was hired on the spot.

Almost everything about the Dean campaign was pioneering -- the blog, the fundraising haul, the e-mail list, the Meetup events that staffers from other campaigns jokingly referred to as a "bar scene out of 'Star Wars.' "

Anxious to replicate Dean's success, other candidates started Web operations in 2004, with more politicians jumping on the online bandwagon in last year's midterms. A fledgling network was ready to be enlisted by the 2008 candidates, with salaries as high as $100,000 as a lure.

On the Democratic side, Gross has worked with Rospars, who has worked with Tim Tagaris, 30, online strategist for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. On the Republican side, Stephen Smith, 25, works with Finn, Romney's online strategist, who used to work with Patrick Ruffini, 28, the top online adviser for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

It's a mostly white and male group -- "Pretty crazy, huh?" said Finn, 26, one of the few female online strategists -- and it's so tightknit that when Christian Ferry, 32, was appointed McCain's e-campaign director in February, the reaction was "Christian who?" Most didn't know Ferry, who worked for McCain's 2000 campaign.

Rospars, after working for Dean, co-founded Blue State Digital, an online political strategy firm, and helped create the online department for the Democratic National Committee. Smith, a Tennessean and a Bill Frist loyalist, built iFrist, an online political volunteer program for the former Senate majority leader. Gross, a rock drummer and a longtime environmental activist, started Dean's Blog for America, the first presidential-candidate blog.

They're political junkies at heart, not former pajama-clad computer hackers who've put on a suit to join a campaign team. Smith, for example, studied political theory and history at Princeton. Rospars was a political science major at George Washington University. As they see it, it just so happens that they're (mostly) technically proficient.

And since most have been or are bloggers themselves, they're familiar with Peter Daou, 41, Internet director for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.); he's seen as the Yoda of the blogosphere because of the Daou Report, a comprehensive snapshot of the Web's blue and red blogs that he wrote until joining the Clinton campaign.

For the most part, the OPOs are tech evangelicals first and partisans second.

"I've always believed that the bigger the online world grew, the better for our democracy," said Daou. "A voter somewhere is sitting in her living room, going online, and participating in ways that voters in the past couldn't. That's exciting."

"It's an opening up of the process -- 'I'll read a blog, I'll post a video' -- a way of bringing more supporters in," added Ruffini.

Dean's campaign proved conclusively that the Internet can be an important fundraising vehicle, and that role has increased exponentially in the 2008 campaign. Obama's and Romney's fundraising prowess in the first three months of the year sealed their status as serious presidential contenders, and much of their success came through Internet programs such as ComMitt and MyBarackObama.

But the Internet touches not just fundraising but also all other facets of the campaigns, including communications and field organizing, and the buzzword that OPOs throw around is "integration" -- how well the online department is integrated with the rest of the campaign and its staff.

Everyone agrees that more integration is needed. Not everyone agrees on what it means.

At Romney's camp in Boston, integration means that there is no online department and that Smith and Finn work for other campaign departments. For example, Smith, director of online communications, reports to Matt Rhoades, the communications director.

At Clinton headquarters in Arlington, integration means that Daou, who leads the Internet department's staff of 10, is considered a senior staffer but answers to the communications director. Daou reports to Howard Wolfson, who reports to Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton's campaign manager.

At Obama's headquarters in Chicago, integration means that Rospars, the new-media director, reports to Plouffe, the campaign manager, and Rospars's staff of 11 sits together, next to the research and communications departments.

And at the Edwards camp in Chapel Hill, Gross answers to David Bonior, the campaign manager.

"Maybe full integration means that this is the last cycle where candidates need an 'online team' and 'online strategists,' " Gross said. "Maybe by the time we get to 2012, the next election cycle, there would be no difference between a candidate's campaign strategy and online strategy."

Gross is working with his onetime boss, Trippi, who joined the Edwards team two weeks ago after talking to both Obama and Clinton. Trippi is a senior adviser to the campaign, helping with its overall media strategy.

"If you think about it, the Dean campaign was really in the stone age three, four years ago," Trippi said. "We didn't even have YouTube then."

His goal now, Trippi said, is to take advantage of voter-generated content. This week Edwards released his first television ad, which coincided with President Bush's veto of the Iraq funding bill. And the 30-second spot, which runs in the D.C. media market, has a major online component -- voters can send their own message to Bush by adding videos to the spot and posting them on Edwards's official site and on YouTube.

"It's not just TV, it's not just the Web," said Trippi. "It's what I call integrated media."

Finding the Format That Fits Best

To a large extent, a candidate's online strategy depends on what the campaign perceives as its greatest need. Romney is doing a lot of online videos, many of them excerpts from television appearances and public speeches. Mitt TV launched earlier this year on his Web site, and it includes "channels" such as "Meet Mitt Romney," "Ask Mitt Anything" and "Fun."

"He's the least known of the front-runners, and online video is very important to us," Smith said.

Clinton, too, is doing online videos -- but not for the same reason. She is the best known of the candidates, but the public perception of the former first lady is that she is cold, calculating, impersonal.

"My job is to make sure that her ideas, her persona, who she is, is communicated as directly as possible to people," said Daou, who pointed to the three live webcasts, titled "Let the Conversation Begin," posted on Clinton's site shortly after she announced her candidacy.

Edwards, on the other hand, is inescapable on social networking sites. The former senator has a presence on all the popular "soc-nets" (Flickr, MySpace, Facebook), and he has signed up on the obscure ones, too (vSocial, Blip.tv, 43Things).

"In 2003 and 2004, when campaigning online was still a new thing, the Internet audience was relatively small, and everybody yielded the playing field to the Dean campaign," Gross said. "But the Internet audience is now much more mainstream and much more fragmented. . . . The challenge for everyone now is, how do you get your candidate into this whole new Internet audience?"

And Obama, the candidate to beat on the Web, faces the toughest challenge. Judging by his robust fundraising on MyBarackObama and his numbers of supporters on Facebook and MySpace, he's the most popular candidate online, Republican or Democrat.

But this week the "Barocket," as TechPresident dubbed Obama because of his rapid rise, had his biggest online skirmish yet, and with one of his supporters. After hearing Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Joe Anthony, a 29-year-old paralegal in Los Angeles, created a MySpace page that carried Obama's name. The page attracted thousands of "friends" -- 35,000 by February, 100,000 by April and nearly 160,000 by Monday night.

For weeks, Anthony said, he had a "good working relationship" with Rospars's online team. But things went sour. Anthony wanted to be compensated for his work on the site. Rospars's team wanted the page's thousands of supporters and control over content. In the end, after much buzz in the blogosphere -- some good, mostly bad -- Rospars created the campaign's own MySpace page.

"We're flying by the seat of our pants," Rospars wrote Wednesday night on Obama's blog, "and establishing new ways of doing things every day. We're going to try new things, and sometimes it's going to work, and sometimes it's not going to work. That's the cost and that's the risk of experimenting."

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