Is the Obama Campaign Getting Special Favors From Google?

Posted: Jun 16, 2011 8:59 AM

A spokesman for Google "strenuously" denies the charge, but still: Hmmm.

Google denied Wednesday that it gave President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign special access to a new advertising program, something a sales representative from the search and advertising giant had claimed in an email to customers.

The new ad program would charge clients for every email address (or other piece of user data) they collect. The program is attractive to campaigns eager for that information, so when a staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee saw what appeared to be an Obama ad built on this technology on the RealClearPolitics website last month, she emailed a Google sales rep to ask about creating a similar ad campaign for Republicans. The saleswoman, Sirene Abou-Chakra, replied by suggesting that Obama had a special deal.

“This is a pre-alpha product that is being released to a select few clients,” she wrote in an email, referring to the first stage of a product’s roll-out. “I’d be happy to get you into the beta if you’re interested.”

A similar email went out to at least one other Republican digital media firm, a Republican source said.  “It certainly raises some red flags that the Obama campaign appears to have been given special access to a new online advertising product,” said NRSC communications director Brian Walsh in response to an inquiry from POLITICO.

But Google spokesman Jake Parrilo denied strenuously that the Obama campaign had been granted special access to the pilot program, and chalked the email up to inaccurate “puffery” by the sales representative. The ad that appeared on RealClearPolitics, he said, was not a Google ad at all.  “This is an experiment and while we generally do not comment on those experiments we can tell you that we have not sold a single CPL [cost-per-lead] ad unit to any political candidates or committees,” said Parrillo.  And Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt seconded the company’s account that the campaign had not purchased any ads or enrolled in the Google pilot program.

Well if Google and the Obama campaign both deny it, it must have no basis in fact -- even though an NRSC staffer saw an Obama-tailored mock-up of the product online, and a Google salesperson stated that a "pre-alpha" version of it had been released to a few "select clients."  Thickening the plot is the revelation by Politico that Google attempted to shoot the (wrong) messenger, a tactic with which the Obama political operation is intimately familiar:

After POLITICO asked Google about the suggestion of a special deal for the campaign, a Google spokesman forwarded a reporter correspondence between the company and the NRSC, charging - inaccurately - that the committee had been the source of POLITICO’s information.

The forward prompted Walsh to add that he is “concerned that Google shared a private email exchange with our committee and their company with the media.”

How interesting.  Google was so eager to beat back this story that it falsely accused Republicans of being Politico's source -- and even went so far as to forward a private email exchange between the company and a GOP official to a reporter.  That sure sounds like hardball, with a twist of politics, doesn't it?  The NRSC's Brian Walsh is entirely justified to have his antennae up about this.  It may be a totally innocent coincidence or misunderstanding, but it may not.  Team Obama ran technological rings around the McCain campaign in 2008.  Republicans are playing catch-up for 2012, so the mere possibility that the Obama camp is being offered a special early leg up by the online search and advertising titan merits further scrutiny.