There is a growing sense in the final days of the election campaign that Team Obama will narrowly win a second term for the President. When he does win, it will be because of the sharp, disciplined strategy that has successfully steered the campaign through treacherous shoals and rough waters.
The brilliant thing about the Obama campaign strategy is that you can see how the top-level strategy cleanly interfaces with the on-the-ground organising. The admirable thing about the campaign strategy is the discipline that the campaign has in continuing with it even in the face of an onslaught of negative media coverage following the first Presidential Debate.
Strategy is simply the process of allocating scarce resources. At its most basic level, strategy is about concentrating your efforts into an overpowering mass against your opponent.
Here are the six elements of the Obama campaign strategy that I think have been crucial in ensuring that Obama continue to dominate the election campaign.
1. Investing in field organising
The big bet made by the Obama campaign is its enormous investment in field operations. This means that the Obama campaign has a much larger physical presence in all of the swing states, as well as the “export states” (non-battleground states where Obama supporters are encouraged to support a nearby swing state).
The political operative’s rule of thumb is that organization can increase your share of the vote by two percentage points; Obama won the national popular vote by seven points. One academic study looked at Obama’s edge in field offices and concluded they probably put a couple of extra states in his column…
Obama has over 800 field offices across the USA, compared to Romney’s 300. This is both a qualitative and quantitative advantage. The Obama campaign has a larger capacity to do the more effective campaigning: knocking on doors and calling people — the personal conversations that actually change peoples’ votes.
The other effect of the large field operation is the Get Out The Vote operation that takes up the last week and a half of the campaign. In states with early voting, the GOTV campaign is essential in providing Obama with a pre-Election Day boost. In New Hampshire, where I’ve been campaigning, there is no early voting, so the entire GOTV operation comes together on Election Day. However, Team Obama has also focused on other elements, like absentee ballots, postal ballots and making sure people who out of state on Election Day get their vote in.
At last count, Obama was dominating early voting by a ratio of two to one over Romney. With around thirty percent of voters casting a vote early in 2012, this gives Obama a crucial edge — which would not have been possible without a field organisation.
2. Clear core message: Forward & the Economy
Probably the most admirable and disciplined part of Obama’s campaign has been his relentless focus on the economy. I’ve heard Obama’s stump speech three times now, and it is almost entirely focused on jobs and economic growth — with health care and women’s rights getting a mention too.
There is enormous pressure on campaigns to change their messaging throughout the campaign as the media pack grows bored with hearing the same story over and over. In Australia in 2010, this boredom manifested in ludicrous and risible “meta” reporting — media coverage about how the campaign was being covered by the media.
Obama not only kept his focus on the economy, but he did so during the bad times following the first debate. Of course Obama raised other issues, like Romney’s 47 percent comment, Romney’s promise to de-fund PBS and Sesame St, and of course Hurricane Sandy.
Romney on the other hand switched his strategy several times. The original Romney strategy was to make the election a referendum on Obama. This changed to a “choice” election when the jobs figures picked up. Romney also decided to focus for a week on foreign policy and Libya. He was also constantly diverted by the bomb chuckers in his own party who spouted repulsive views about rape and abortion.
Additionally, Obama has kept his campaign motto — a single, strong word: Forward — despite some criticism. The forward motto is the central theme around which Obama’s stump speeches are built, and his entire campaign messaging hangs off the concept that “America needs to go foward, not back”. This sums up his pitch that things are getting better, and that the policies of the Republicans caused the economic mess in the first place.
3. Hit Mitt: Defining the opposition early, often
The Democrats and Obama campaign spent a substantial part of their television advertising dollars in the early part of the campaign: when Romney was still wrapping up the Republican nomination. Focused in the swing states, the Obama ads effectively established the image of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who had wholly adopted the extreme right-wing Republican agenda.
These early attack ads were effective because until now, most voters who hadn’t participated in the Republican primaries, had no real idea of who Mitt Romney was. He was a blank slate and the Obama campaign filled in the gaps.
There’s a notion in marketing that says that once people have formed a view or attitude about something or someone (a brand), it is very difficult to change it. Mass media advertising is most effective when raising awareness about a new brand. What Obama did was create a negative “Brand Romney”.
This “Hit Mitt” strategy has been proven effective in the polls measuring Romney’s likeability and trustworthiness in the swing states. Although Romney was able to claw back a lot of ground after the first debate, in the swing states, where the Obama campaign had concentrated their efforts, Romney’s image is still negatively viewed.
A side note to this is the Obama campaign’s decision not to paint Romney as a flip-flopper, but instead as a “severe conservative”. This is because the flip-flopper persona for Romney is beneficial! Independent voters who focus on Romney’s changing views can simply pick the one they like and hope that Romney turns out the way they’d picked. The conservative, plutocrat Romney however was a lot less popular than flip-flopper Romney — which is why the focus by the Obama campaign has never really been on his ever-changing positions.
4. Data integration
A large investment by the Obama campaign following the 2008 election has been in their digital infrastructure. Called Project Narwhal, it brings together the enormous email database with social media and the field operation.
The data integration is not just about ensuring that volunteers and field organisers have accurate information to hand when making calls or knocking on doors. At the commanding heights of the campaign, the numbers generated by campaign field operations can be scrutinised to see where additional resources are needed.
This purpose-driven digital and data campaigning is important because it actually makes all the online efforts meaningful and useful. The Obama digital plan ties perfectly with the field operation that the campaign believes will win them the election.
5. Change the electoral map: voter registration
Part strategy, part tactic, the Obama campaign has focused on changing the electoral maps. In 2008, Obama won on the back of a large youth and minority vote — people aged under 29, Blacks, Latinos and other minorities all came out in record numbers for Obama.
This has been replicated by the 2012 campaign through massive voter registration efforts. With the demise of ACORN, the Democratic party and the Obama campaigns (and competitive down-ticket campaigns like the Elizabeth Warren campaign) have registered tens of thousands of new voters, the majority of whom are in Obama-supporting demographics.
It’s true that the Obama campaign’s strategy is far more reliant on bringing new voters into the electorate — particularly the young and minority voters who are less likely to register and vote. But if the Democrats can do that, it could make a big difference in a close election.
“If there’s a blowout election, the ground game is nice,” Bird, the Obama field director, said. “But in a state-by-state close contest for electoral votes, where it’s deadlocked going in, if you know you expanded the electorate, and you know who those people are, and you have volunteers trained to turn them out — that’s what the ground game is engineered to do.”
The registration drives tie into the field organising and digital/data campaigning — new voters expand the “universe” of voters that the Obama campaign can target for GOTV. This is because in the USA, unlike Australia, voters must register as either Democrats, Republicans or independents (or occasionally smaller parties).
6. Aggressive fundraising
The final area where Obama’s campaign discipline has paid off is their fundraising. I’ve never seen a more aggressive, relentless fundraising effort — and it has worked. By early October, Obama was on track to raise $1 billion — handsomely eclipsing Romney’s campaign. Obama supporters can receive as many as five or six emails a day based on events as they happen.
The fundraising also ties into the field organising and data campaigning. Donors are tied into the volunteer efforts and GOTV.
The high fundraising targets have helped the Obama campaign pay for their early advertising blitz against Romney and to open all those 800 field offices around the country.
And while the grassroots fundraising has been impressive — some 10 million individual donors — the Obama campaign also has a handsome large donation programme, with high dollar value dinners with celebrities like George Clooney and Beyonce raising $625,000 at a single event.
The discipline here is that the Obama campaign has bucked much of the advice from the fundraising community about over-saturating supporters with appeals to donate. With several appeals sent to supporters each day, the Obama campaign may have turned some people off, but the numbers tell the story that people keep giving.