Poor David Plouffe. One of the principal architects of President Barack Obama’s winning 2008 campaign, now head of policy for ride-sharing service Uber, was being torn in two directions at a Sydney talk last night.

While the 300-strong audience had clearly turned up to the McKell Institute talk to hear Plouffe talk about Obama, the 47-year-old strategist really wanted to talk about Uber. Luckily, there were some common themes (David and Goliath, etc) so both topics got a hearing.

Finally, by question time (crowd-sourced by Twitter) he had caved, and told a good story about campaigning at the Iowa State Fair in 2008 and winning a large, stuffed toy dog. This, he decided, should be tied to the top of the campaign bus to remind the voters of Mitt Romney’s habit of putting the family pooch there on holidays.

It was a massive turnout at Sydney University to hear Plouffe, and it can’t all have been due to the free $50 Uber credit received with each invitation. The Great Hall was packed with university students, while up the front were former NSW premier Kristina Keneally and her husband, Ben, the mayor of Botany Bay, former federal MP Ross Cameron and numerous political advisory types.

Plouffe said that when he and his business partner, David Axelrod, started campaigning, Obama was given a less than 5% chance of winning against the Republicans. (Anyone wanting to know more about this should read John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s superb book Race of a Lifetime: How Obama won the White House).

The low-cost Obama campaign basically harnessed “people power” to get people out to vote, donate small sums of money and talk to each other about the candidate.

“What is interesting to me is the power of people and grassroots activism in politics and business,” Plouffe said. “What the Obama campaign and Uber have in common is that a key driver of growth is the conversation between people in their living rooms,” he said, adding that Uber spends little money on marketing, relying on social media and word-of-mouth.

A large part of this is due to a “deficit of trust” in our institutions, particularly political ones, so people place far more trust in each other, he said. “In 2008, the most important conversation was with the neighbour.”

By 2012, the “giddy inspiration” of the first presidential campaign had been replaced by “steely determination,” he said. Plouffe observed that conventional news media and television advertising would play a far less important part in future political campaigns.

Personal human interaction was now the most powerful campaigning tool, and this could be achieved through social media.

“Facebook is the front page of the world.”

He also said he thought Australia’s system of compulsory voting was “heaven”. Running campaigns here only meant convincing swinging voters, rather than first having to get people out to vote.

But back on Uber, Plouffe said that the ride-sharing service currently employed 2000 drivers in Australia and had the potential to employ 20,000.

Uber had the potential to alleviate one of the most pressing problems of this century, traffic congestion caused by urbanisation, he said. It makes sense — if more people leave their cars at home and use a car-sharing service, a bicycle or public transport, it will be good for everyone.

And here in NSW, we love Uber (and all of its competitors) because they’ve “disrupted” one of the state’s most anti-competitive industries, the hated taxi cartel, which guaranteed shocking service for sky-high prices. Blowing that up has created a great deal of goodwill for Uber, but it will now have to do something more than demonstrate it’s a more convenient taxi.

The next version of Uber, according to Plouffe, is UberPool, which is already operating in a few cities overseas. Basically a form of digital hitchhiking, it notifies you if someone near you is travelling a similar route, so you can share the ride and split the cost.

I’m not sure how Uber gets round the personal security issues — do I want to be sharing a car with a total stranger, and what if he wants to listen to 2GB? In the new Tinderesque world, it would probably turn into a kind of automotive dating service.

Anyway, it was a good talk, and everyone left feeling like they’d had an Uber Obama kind of night. Although I did read a critical tweet on the way home. It said we already have a long-standing ride-sharing service in Sydney; it’s called a “bus”.

Peter Fray

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