Interview: Political Strategist and Obama Campaign Media Adviser John Del Cecato

dsc_0223 Ever wonder who actually wrote most of the Obama campaign ads that were filling the airwaves this time last year? It was a thirtysomething Deadhead named John Del Cecato, who managed to mesh gears with his favorite band while also helping get his candidate elected. He was then named one of Politics Magazine’s “Rising Stars”. Del Cecato had worked with David Axelrod at the consulting firm AKPD Message and Media since way back in 2001. When Axelrod left the firm to set up shop next to the Oval Office as White House Senior Advisor, it left Del Cecato and a few partners running one of the hottest political shops in the country. We recently chatted with John about music and politics (and everything in between).

Tell us about your role in the Obama campaign.

I served as media advisor on the Obama campaign. Primarily, it was my job to write and produce TV commercials, but I also helped with message development and press strategy. David Axelrod (my business partner until January, when he left to work at the White House) was the campaign’s chief strategist, and David Plouffe (who still works with us at AKPD) was the campaign manager—so I got a bird’s-eye view of the campaign from start to finish.

In your view, how did the youth vote and the influence musicians have on the youth vote play into the election? Do you think work that various organizations and musicians put in – both partisan and nonpartisan – had an impact?

For as long as I can remember, the conventional wisdom states that young people were among the least reliable political participants – from organizing, to fundraising, to voting. President Obama and his campaign team simply refused to accept that, and it paid off. The percent of Iowa caucusgoers under 30 grew from 17% in 2004 to 22% in 2008. That’s a 30% increase in their share of the electorate – a real game changer.

Music can clearly be a motivating tool – and we spent many hours in the studio working to find the right tracks for our spots. We listened to a hundred songs before we finally got the right feel for our first youth-oriented ad. We wanted it to feel fresh, energetic, and motivating, without being so edgy as to risk turning off older voters. (The track was composed by a brilliant New York musician named Dan Zweben.)

One rule of thumb for effective grassroots communication is “meeting voters where they are.” That’s why groups like HeadCount have been so successful in making politics relevant to many folks who hadn’t participated in the process before. Same goes for Will.I.Am and the powerful “Yes We Can” video, which was made without the campaign’s knowledge and proved to be incredibly viral.

dsc00006 You must have some amazing stories from the campaign. What is your favorite one?

Through HeadCount, I got to meet one of my musical heroes, Phil Lesh – and I had the opportunity to introduce him, his wife Jill, and their son Brian to President Obama in fall 2007. Phil could not have been more down-to-earth and genuinely interested in helping the cause. He asked me to film a message from Obama that the band could air at the DeadHeads for Obama concert at the Warfield, just prior to the California Democratic primary. I told Phil I seriously doubted I could make that happen, but to my surprise, the President agreed and recorded an off-the-cuff message while traveling on the campaign plane. We turned it around in a day or so and got the video to San Francisco just in time. It was very cool to see my worlds collide.

People sometimes forget how close the primaries were. With that in mind, what do you think was the most critical strategy or tactic that helped Barack Obama win the Democractic nomination and ultimately the presidency? What one thing that do you look back at and say, “Wow, I’m so glad we did that”?

The most important strategic decision was to let the campaign be a truly grassroots effort. We didn’t give orders from headquarters and demand that all of our volunteers and supporters stay on script. Instead, Plouffe decided we would embrace the creativity and ideas that ordinary people were inspired to offer – whether it be a viral video, email, or a local rally. Not all of them worked, but many of them did, and that peer-to-peer persuasion was more potent than any TV ad I ever made.

What are you up to these days? Are you finding time to see music?

Right now I’m in the middle of the fight to pass health-insurance reform, trying to recapture some of that grassroots energy that elected the President and apply it to a cause that affects almost everybody in this country. The fact that insurance companies can currently deny coverage due to preexisting conditions, or hike out-of-pocket costs to absurd levels, or refuse to pay the full cost of preventive care that keeps people healthy – it’s just un-American, in my view.

Between work and my new puppy, I haven’t gotten to see nearly as much music as I’d like. I did catch The Dead at Roseland back in March, and Billy’s band BK3 in New Haven a few months ago. You can’t leave one of those shows without feeling like these guys understand the power of music like nobody else – and they channel every ounce of their passion into lifting up the audience instead of themselves. That’s the way music (and politics) should be.

Tell your friends!