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ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

Obama's Conversation Starter

From Howard Dean To Blue State Digital To The Current President, Joe Rospars Invisibly Shapes The National Discourse

Joe RosparsJoe Rospars made the new media operation go at Obama For America, though his name remained obscure throughout. "If he wanted to, 13 million people could know the name Joe Rospars," said Sam Graham-Felsen, who ran the campaign's blog. (Credit: Richard A. Bloom)

Long after dozens of Obama For America campaign diehards had gone home, Joe Rospars and Sam Graham-Felsen were still staked out on the 11th floor of a nondescript Chicago office building one night in March 2007.

 

As usual, they were working long hours, blogging, tracking supporters and otherwise keeping Barack Obama's new media operation alive. But that night they were also waiting for someone special to arrive -- the campaign's 75,000th donor, a milestone that, at the time, seemed grand.

Q&A With Rospars• Top three sites you check in the morning? gmail.com, nytimes.com, failblog.org • Social networking site you use the most? Facebook • Two people you follow on Twitter? Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Shaquille O’Neal • Most Web-savvy Republican? Ron Paul • PC or Mac? MacBook Pro • Blackberry or iPhone? Google phone • Most-used text phrase? Yo • Most recent online purchase? Online donation to PeerPals.org, a charity my sister founded • If someone called you at 3 a.m., who would it be and what would they want? Answering this question will only encourage people to call me at 3 a.m. • How often do you Google yourself? Never • What was your food of choice at campaign headquarters? Bags and bags of sunflower seeds • What’s the biggest difference between people in New York and D.C.? There are lots more of them. • If you had to describe your campaign experience in one word, what would it be? Inspiring

Rospars, then 25, had recently come on as the campaign's new media director, overseeing a team of fewer than a dozen Web specialists. From the start he was committed to recognizing donors, not money, recalls Graham-Felsen, who ran the campaign's blog. So when the donation came in, Graham-Felsen remembers Rospars saying, "Let's give that guy a call." The donor's story was spotlighted on the blog and e-mailed to thousands of supporters. The blog post was signed by Graham-Felsen, and the e-mail came from campaign director David Plouffe. Not from Rospars, even though the idea was his. That's how Rospars wanted it.

In fact, Rospars never put his name on any official campaign e-mail, or any he sent while working for the Democratic National Committee or Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign before that. "If he wanted to, 13 million people could know the name Joe Rospars," Graham-Felsen said. Rospars rebuffed every invitation, even though he admits e-mail "is the thing that I am probably the most involved with."

 

Every campaign needs a "cast of characters" supporters can connect to, Rospars says. Obama, Michelle Obama and Joe Biden starred. Graham-Felsen spoke to supporters every day through his blog. Some supporters' e-mail inboxes were filled with more messages from Plouffe than from their own families. But Rospars was most instrumental by being least overtly involved. His voice was loudest when the voices of others were heard. He's the invisible host responsible for making conversation easy.

"Joe is a connecter," said Macon Phillips, who was Rospars' deputy director during the general election and transitioned to be the White House's new media director. "His work is building relationships between supporters and the principle, and supporters and one another."

***

Rospars hadn't gone looking for work on a presidential campaign. In early 2007, he was working at Blue State Digital, the Internet strategy firm he co-founded with three other former Dean campaign staffers. But when he was approached by Jim Brayton, then Sen. Obama's new media director, and after he met with Plouffe and Obama, Rospars saw an opportunity to run a campaign in a unique way. "It was going to be something organic. It was going to be bottom-up," Rospars said. "Naturally, that would have to go through the digital space."

 

Saying yes meant abandoning his life in D.C. to move to Chicago and support the underdog, a freshman senator who voters might have remembered from the 2004 Democratic National Convention but whose name sometimes went mispronounced anyway. Still, Rospars couldn't turn down a candidate with such an intuitive grasp of grassroots organizing. "That ethos came from the top down on the bottom-up stuff," Rospars said. "We had an organization through which that ran like electricity."

As the campaign team grew, Rospars was tasked with hiring "team leads" to oversee areas such as online organizing, video and design. Among the first on board was Michael Slaby, Rospars' deputy director during the primary campaign and later chief technology officer. Slaby found himself playing realist to the team's aspirations, he recalls. "It's not always easy to be the one to have to ground them in reality," joked Slaby, now 31. Then there was Chris Hughes -- the youngest of the crew, now just 25 -- one of the co-founders of Facebook. The whiz kid made the campaign's online organizing tool, My.BarackObama.com, his life for two years. Kate Albright-Hanna, now 33, left CNN to help produce videos for the campaign. Graham-Felsen contributed a journalistic sensibility to the operation. "He brought an editorial vision to the blog, which is why I tried to get out of the way of that," Rospars remembers.

In total, Rospars hired nine team leads, then stepped aside. "The ability to hire people who have more expertise than you do is always a good sign you're a good leader," Plouffe said. "A department head is only going to be as strong as his team leads." After raving about his staff, Rospars was more typically circumspect about himself: "I think I had an idea of what we needed to do in a comprehensive way and an idea of what we needed not to do."

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While the Internet is often regarded as a limitless resource, it was anything but that in the early months of the campaign. Toward the end of the primary season, the new media staff was still operating with fewer than two dozen people. They were perpetually constrained by lack of money, equipment and time. "Getting everything done" was the hardest part, Rospars said. "You never run out of things to try and test. And you never run out of ideas."

He coordinated with senior staff -- primarily Kevin Malover, the campaign's CTO during the primary -- to scrounge up more resources for his team. Ultimately, it fell to him to make the hard choices when time or money ran short. "It required a very clinical decision-making about what was worth doing and what wasn't worth doing and what we had time for and what we didn't have time for," Rospars said. Certain ideas were costly in manpower, but lucrative in campaign funds, so they were deemed worthwhile -- "Dinner With Barack," where donors in the early part of the campaign could sit down and have a meal with the candidate, raised millions, Rospars said.

Rospars' team of all-stars didn't always make the decisions easy. Although everyone early on wanted more from the campaign coffers than they got, Hughes admits he was "probably more annoying than most." His experience building Facebook taught him how a small number of people could create big returns via the Internet, and gave him confidence to push his ideas. Rospars says that both he and Hughes were "banging on the wall of Kevin's office. We wanted to do more stuff, but for a long time there just weren't the resources." When asked to name an early effort that failed to get off the ground, Rospars laughed and deflected, saying that there were no examples he "would want to get into."

Then the general election came. And the resources. And the people. By the end of the campaign, the new media department had grown to nearly 100 staffers, and on top of that there were some 30 volunteers and interns and another 40 new-media team members spread out among the battleground states. The work of the close-knit group during the long primary season had paid off. Campaign senior staff began to realize more and more the importance of its online component. "At the core of our campaign were the grassroots supporters, and they would be the main reason we won," Plouffe recalls. "They came through the Internet and organized online. They were the heartbeat of our campaign, and Joe and his team realized that."

With Obama's victory in November came the inevitable postgame analysis. Not surprisingly, the news media sought to find one person above all else to crown as the driving force behind the campaign's impressive online operation. Plouffe ("The Man Who Made Obama"). Hughes ("The Kid Who Made Obama President"). Scott Goodstein, director of external organizing. Blue State Digital managing partner Thomas Gensemer. Credit for the campaign is in the eye of the beholder. But to Rospars, it was simple: "I think that credit goes to Barack Obama, right, for being the guy, but also for the ethos of empowering the people. So, it's Obama and the 13 million people."

He may have made a concerted effort to stay out of the campaign limelight, but since the election Rospars has opened up about his work and the new media industry in general. He spoke at the Ad Age Digital Conference in New York and at Harvard and recently returned from a two-week trip to Europe sponsored by the State Department, where he took part in several new media conferences and panel discussions.

Rospars celebrated his birthday -- he turns 28 today -- at the Mets home opener Monday night. He's a native Long Islander, growing up in Oyster Bay. His siblings are all older -- by 11, 12 and 14 years -- which might explain why he progressed faster than most students. Rospars enrolled in George Mason University at 16 through a program that allows high school students to attend college early. "I was a little bored," Rospars said. He followed his interest in comparative politics overseas, studying at Erasmus University in the Netherlands and later at Charles University in Prague. He ended up back in Washington to get a bachelor's degree in political science from George Washington University.

He and two other colleagues -- Ezra Klein, who now writes for the American Prospect, and Matt Singer, who runs the advocacy group Forward Montana -- blogged about Dean's bid for the presidency. One thing led to another, and Rospars ended up leading Dean's new media efforts -- all at the ripe young age of 23, making him now, five years later, a veteran of the still-young industry. "I'm three years older than him, roughly, and in many ways I think of him as a mentor," Phillips said.

***

Days after the election, Rospars jolted awake from the same gut-wrenching feeling of panic that became habit over the course of the campaign. Then relief set in. They won. It's over. And for the first time in almost two years, he could relax. "I'd take an extra 10 minutes and go back to sleep," he said. The campaign was taxing for all involved -- Plouffe describes it as a "grueling affair" -- but especially for those who got on board early in the primary. Slaby calculated it out: He worked just over 600 days with a scant five days off.

Of course, Election Day was never the end. Obviously not for Obama. And not for Rospars, though he's back at Blue State Digital and not at the White House or Organizing for America, the network of supporters spun off from the campaign. Rospars wouldn't discuss the White House's decision to appoint Phillips -- not him -- as its new media director. He does, however, express full confidence in his former deputy's ability to lead the executive branch's online efforts. "It's a challenge because the team's small, a lot smaller than ours was on the campaign, and there's even a lot more to do," Rospars said. In fact, it's fewer than 10 full-time new media employees, according to Phillips.

Rospars admits to being only "vaguely interested in how to make government more transparent. It's not where my heart and passion is." But he's still rooting for the conversation between Obama and his supporters -- a conversation Rospars himself helped enable -- to continue. "I have a somewhat personal emotional investment in the relationship," Rospars said. His firm advises Organizing for America and Rospars wants to help cultivate the network, albeit not to the extent that he did during the campaign. "The relationships didn't end on Election Day," Rospars said. "We built those relationships in a way that it was never really about Election Day or a candidate. It was about a common sense of purpose and what the people wanted the country to be."

One conversation Rospars absolutely will not have is one involving a campaign and the year 2012. "The last thing I'm thinking about is going back and working on the campaign," Rospars said with a laugh. "I can assure you that."

CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect title for Scott Goodstein. This version also adds that Rospars is once again at Blue State Digital.

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