The Drum: It’s the personal contact, stupid

My article about the Obama campaign was published on the ABC’s The Drum site. I have reproduced it below.


If you believed the recent spate of articles focusing on Barack Obama’s high-tech campaign, you could almost believe that his unprecedented electoral success was down to his ‘Big Data’ team and cutting edge web developers.

Certainly, reading the Australian commentary about Obama’s campaign, there is a focus on the technology behind his win and his ability to hold together his ‘rainbow’ coalition of minorities, youth and women. There’s no doubt that the databases and digital wizardry underpinning his campaign machine was amazing, but it’s not even half the story.

I had the great fortune to spend two and a half months in the USA campaigning for Obama, in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. As an organising fellow, I had first-hand experience using the much lauded ‘Dashboard’, as well as Votebuilder and the Blue State Digital tools that ran his campaign website.

More crucial to Obama’s victory was his ability to recruit and mobilise a corps of community leaders and volunteers larger than any previous election campaign. In the USA, this is referred to as ‘field operations’ and the Democrats have had a lead in this area for over twenty years.

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee invested more money into field than any other element of their campaign – including television advertising and digital. Their investment was made, not just a few months out from Election Day, but since their drubbing in the 2010 mid-term elections.

Swing states in the USA, like New Hampshire where I spent weekends knocking on doors of undecided voters, are won on the margins, where a two or three percent change in voting will make a difference.

Field operations – the ‘grassroots organising’ that we’re starting to hear more about in Australia – is simply identifying, recruiting and mobilising volunteers, who then call and door-knock undecided voters.

The Obama campaign had personal contact – a conversation in person or on the phone – with over 125.6 million people. This doesn’t include robo-calls, direct mail, literature drops, or other non-personal contacts. This equates to one person out of every 2.5 people in the USA.

The astounding thing about canvassing for Obama was how targeted it was. The old fashioned act of having a conversation on someone’s door was augmented with the high-tech data crunching, so that the only people you spoke to were undecided voters. What’s more, most of the volunteers knocking on doors were locals – neighbours from around the block or down the street – who had been recruited by Obama’s volunteer outreach program. The digital wizardry was important precisely because it facilitated conversations.

Because of this unprecedented mobilisation of volunteers, Obama defied economic trends to become the first president to be reelected during an economic downturn since Roosevelt.

Compare this to Australia.

From the 1980s, Australian political parties like Labor replaced grassroots campaigning with mass media electoral campaigns. Legions of volunteers were replaced with professional campaign staff who managed direct mail and television ads.

Unfortunately, trying to change someone’s view with television advertising is nearly impossible – look at the $300 million in television advertising wasted by Republican-aligned Super PAC American Crossroads – but impacting someone’s voting decision with a personal conversation is simply more effective.

As branch structures withered over the last twenty years, Labor’s ability to mobilise volunteers for elections has reached dire-straights. Recent elections Queensland and NSW saw reports that the ALP was unable to staff polling stations. Volunteers are often asked to help cash-strapped local campaigns by letter-boxing rather than be trusted to have conversations with voters door-to-door.

Certainly, traditional door knocking still takes place in Australia. Candidates and local campaigns still knock doors, but it is scatter-gun at best and often merely done as a relic: we knock because we always have. Targeting is rudimentary and data collection haphazard.

On a positive note, recent Labor campaigns ramped up their phone outreach efforts, calling thousands of people in swing seats. Labor strategists are taking note of what is happening in the USA and the Democrats’ refocus on field operations.

Field organising is expensive and difficult. A senior Massachusetts Obama campaign official I spoke with after the election emphasized the time and resource intensive nature of grassroots campaigning.

The Obama campaign wasn’t just calling people a few weeks out from Election Day. In swing states like Ohio and New Hampshire they never left after the 2008 campaign. Neighbourhood campaign teams remained active. The Cambridge neighbourhood team that I worked with in the final week of the campaign had a core group of around fifteen people who had been involved when Obama had won the primaries four years earlier. That is a long-term investment by the Obama campaign.

Historically the Republicans have relied on third parties for their personal voter contact: gun clubs, evangelical church groups and other conservative organisations. In 2004, the Republican National Committee, under the auspices of Karl Rove, tried to emulate the Democratic grassroots organisation with a 72-Hour Task Force. It was a massive “get out the vote” effort in the final days of the campaign, and helped Bush win a second term, but was left to wither after Election Day. The Romney campaign laughably counted “not homes” and voice messages left on answering machines as a personal contact; Obama only counted real conversations.

There’s a lot to learn in Australia from the recent US election. Not all the lessons and tactics from Obama are relevant of course; we have compulsory voting here which negates the need for a large Get Out The Vote operation.

Re-engaging people with personal contacts can only be a healthy thing. I had the opportunity to meet Americans from every walk of life. From rural farm houses to trailer parks and everything in between, the people I met were mostly friendly and receptive to having their vote canvassed, even if they were voting for the other guy. Neighbours volunteering to talk to other neighbours about politics and the future of their nation is what democracy should be about.

In an era where we are becoming more networked, more digital, more focused on sound-bites and one-liners expressed in 140 characters or less, my experience from the Obama campaign is that an old-fashioned conversation is more important than ever.

2 responses to “The Drum: It’s the personal contact, stupid”

  1. Peter Scott Avatar

    You produce such good and useful material …thanks

    1. Alex Avatar