The Obama Campaign

Well, that was some two weeks.  The Obama campaign is over – ending in victory, of course – and I’m back to Ireland today. (…well, it was “today” when I started writing this last Sunday.)

The Obama campaign was, overall, a masterclass in grassroots activism.  The sheer numbers of people contributing to the campaign – be it money or time – was amazing.  This meant that the money and staff required to operate the campaign were there all the time.

The Bad

Despite the hype, however, this was not a wonder of grassroots decision making.  Decisions were made way above the field office level, and pushed down.  There was no pushing back up.  All literature and messaging was being delivered at state level, and was customised no more locally than congressional districts.

This occasionally led to a lack of autonomy/flexibility on the ground.  Alexandria could have done some things better given the human resources we had, but directions were being sent down to deal with all Virginia field offices, and had to take into account the fact that some didn’t have the same local resources.  There was no flexibility, particularly in the last few days, for individual offices to do more than the required.

The Good

The list of things they did well is far longer, though:

  • Voter Registration: In Alexandria, VA for example, McCain got almost exactly the same vote as George W Bush did in 2004.  However, Obama got 10,000 more votes than John Kerry.  Those were the newly registered voters and first time voters – people who previously weren’t engaged with politics.
  • ‘Ownership’: Everyone was given ownership of the campaign, and this was echoed through messaging, management style and fundraising.  Getting people to donate a small amount of time or money meant they felt more involved in Obama’s candidacy.  That meant they were likely to give more time or money, but also that they were more likely to spend time convincing family, friends and colleagues to vote for Obama too.  The development of this personal ownership of the campaign was, in my opinion, probably its greatest strategy.
  • Data: Working on the Data Team in the Alexandria Field Office, I got to see just what they had on file for volunteers and voters.  And it was a hell of a lot.  Looking back through old callsheets and canvass packs when we were tidying up the office this week, it was clear that a lot of time and effort was expended earlier in the campaign getting that data in place.  What that meant was that efforts in the final weeks could be focussed very tightly on getting out the voters likely to support Obama, or likely to be winnable.  Rather than trying to call to every house, only confirmed Obama supporters or those who had given an indication (through demographics, registration or otherwise) that they were possible supporters were contacted.  Data is probably the least transferable of their powers to Europe/Ireland.  Data Protection laws limit the amount of information you can collect, and, almost as importantly, how it can be shared between organisational units.
  • Staff & Training: While there weren’t as many paid staff in the field as you might be lead to believe, each Field Office did have one full time staffer.  This person had generally been doing that job since February.  They were allocated to territory about the size of a Dáil constituency.  They were additional to, rather than instead of, the local Democratic Committee staff & offices and local politicians’ staff & offices.  Their sole task was running the Obama campaign – not running Senate or Congressional campaigns at the same time.  If the Senate/Congress candidate happened to get carried on the wave, great.  But it wasn’t the aim.  These staffers were given lots of training.   There was also extensive training for the team of full time volunteers who worked on the campaign without pay for months.

    Obama for America Phonebank in Alexandria VA

    Obama for America Phonebank in Alexandria VA

  • Inspiration: On the topic of full time volunteers, by the time I arrived in Alexandria, there were already at least eight full time volunteers in the office.  That’s not including those who were spending “only” six to eight hours a day working on the campaign.  Many weren’t even American – in the last week there were three Irish people full time, two Brits, an Australian and a Frenchman (and those are just the ones I met personally).  Having a candidate who inspired people enough to give up their time, and their paid employment in some cases (or their job search in others) is a brilliant asset, although not one that can be replicated on demand.
  • Volunteer Range: Despite what you might have heard, the campaign wasn’t all young people.  There was a huge range of ages volunteering – from 16 year olds to 80+ year olds in my office alone.  This has a double advantage: incoming volunteers have someone they can identify with; and voters can see someone “like me” working on the campaign.  “Someone like me” is one of the most important influencers out there (read Cialdini).  Volunteers didn’t need to have political experience, or even experience in the area they were working (e.g. phone banking).  The structures were all based on totally inexperienced volunteers, and so, as said above, training was built in from the start.  It appeared to me that a decision had been made early in the campaign that it was better to have 100 rookie volunteers and have 1 do something wrong, than to have only 10 seasoned volunteers.

Get Out The Vote

The campaign in my area (Alexandria, VA) in the last fortnight was purely a Get Out The Vote operation.  We knew that the city would go strongly for Obama, so it was simply a matter of trying to get turnout as high as possible.

This had been part of the strategy across the country for some time, and so the earlier work of the campaign had been largely focussed on gathering intelligence about which voters were likely to vote Obama.  Then, it was just a matter of getting them to the polls on election day.

Efforts were focussed on getting people to polling stations (or to early voting) and keeping them in line if there was a queue.  This was particularly evident on election day.  At 18:30, just half an hour before polls closed, there were fourteen Obama volunteers at the polling station I was at.  Fortunately, there were no queues – the huge turnout meaning almost everyone had already voted at that stage.

What Obama Must Do Now

Set expectations right.  It’s as simple as that.  As I’ve already said to those of you who I’ve been speaking to in the last few days, he has about four weeks to set expectations for the next four years.  It’s particularly important that expectations for the first two years are not only achievable, but exceedable.  Obama has been put on such a pedestal by his supporters (and his campaign) that only meeting expectations could be seen as failure.

Not only must he set expectations, but he should do it sooner rather than later.  A vacuum of expectation-setting will simply allow the TV networks to set the bar, and you certainly don’t want that.


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