At the core of the Obama campaign is a massive field operation founded on face-to-face and one-to-one contact between a large corps of volunteers and their neighbours.
The objective of this face-to-face contact is:
- Identifying undecided voters (typically via phone calls);
- Persuading undecided voters to support Obama (either through phone calls or face-to-face contact), and then
- Using face-to-face and phone contact to Get Out The Vote in the last week and a half of the campaign.
You can see that this system is really designed around the specifics of voluntary voting. Presidential campaigns are organised to enthuse and mobilise the “base” of voters to come and vote, and also to persuade and get out undecided and independent voters. This is why candidates like Paul Ryan get chosen as VP picks — to motivate the extreme right of the Republican Party. It was also why Obama chose Joe Biden in 2008: he was strongly liked amongst white, blue collar voters (especially male union members) in the industrial/agricultural swing states.
But how useful is this face-to-face contact under compulsory voting?
The chief goal of one-on-one voter contact is persuasion and motivation. In Australia, everyone is required to vote. Motivation is largely unnecessary, so historically over the last three decades the major parties have focused on persuasion. That persuasion focused has narrowed in the last fifteen or twenty years to really just persuade the 8-12% of swing voters who are “up for grabs” — with little in the way of persuasion for rusted on voters for either parties.
The result has been a massive drop-off in enthusiasm, especially with Labor voters. In fact, the disengaged, low-involvement swing voter segment has dramatically increased and on the left, the values-focused, engaged voter has been targeted by the Greens political party.
Without the need to Get Out The Vote however, what incentive is there for major political parties to invest in huge field operations? With persuasion, television advertising is more “effective”, in that parties can just saturate the mass media in the last week of the campaign when the disengaged swing voters finally start to tune in. The same can be said with saturation direct mail.
Field operations like those we see in the USA are ruinously expensive and complicated to run.
Motivation isn’t really an issue. Major political parties are largely funded by public electoral funds and large corporate or union donations. This renders large-scale micro donations moot in Australia, whereas in America, whipping up enthusiasm in a candidate or party (like we saw at the Democratic National Convention last week) can result in significant fundraising income — and assist in identifying potential volunteers or voters to be turned out during GOTV.
A lot of people on the progressive side of politics in Australia are calling for the adoption of Obama-style community organising. In marginal seats, this kind of campaigning already happens. It’s called door knocking and phone-banking. In 2004, 2007 and 2010, I did a lot of it in marginal seats.
The main difference is on the data-side. The Obama campaign, using NGP-VAN’s Vote Builder system and their home-grown Dashboard report conversations, calls, knocks and results on a national scale. These reports are essential for strategic spending — both for television ads and also investment in more organising staff.
The main thing I have observed that is a major part of the US community organising scene are the events. House parties and other neighbourhood based events are a big part of the organising plans here, and are based on (again) identifying and motivating Obama supporters. With the big set-piece debates and conventions, there are plenty of opportunities for the Obama campaign to reach out to current and potential volunteers to come to community campaign event.
The final thing that the Obama campaign has done, which is unlikely to be replicated in Australia any time soon, is the “letting go”. Although there is a large contingent of paid field organising staff where I’m based, there is an even larger group of volunteers — the Organising Fellows, Neighbourhood Captains and Neighbourhood Teams. These volunteers take on a significant portion of the organising of important campaign functions, such as canvassing and phone-banking. Volunteers are even able to generate lists of voters and supporters to contact — all without involvement from paid staff.
This is one of the reasons why Obama has been able to build such a large field operation. He’s been willing to “let go” — so long as those volunteers report back their numbers of calls, knocks and conversations.
Without the need to enthuse supporters and motivate volunteers, it’s unlikely that Australia (or Labor) will adopt the field organising model that is an integral part of the US system. Compulsory voting does away with the need for it.
Other elements of the US campaign operations no doubt will be imported: the data-centric nature of campaigns; the digital campaigning elements; and hopefully the narrative-crafting.
And of course, unions and other non-profits, who rely on motivating people to be engaged and active, or to vote in voluntary elections (e.g. industrial action ballots), will benefit from studying the US GOTV systems.