The lessons for unions from Obama’s 2012 campaign

I had the great fortune to work for the Obama for America campaign for two and a half months in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I believe there are many elements of his campaign that unions could learn from. Of course, the organising model that Obama adopted was based on Marshall Ganz and Saul Alinsky. Nevertheless, the focus, discipline and responsive nature of Obama’s campaign are among the key elements that unions can adopt.

While the 2008 campaign was widely lauded for his campaign’s ability to tap into small donors and pioneer political use of social media, coverage of the 2012 campaign has focused on “big data”. In truth, both campaigns were remarkable because of their enormous, highly effective field organising — the mobilisation of over 2 million volunteers to talk to their neighbours and others about voting for Obama.

So, what can unions take away?

Focus (on the biggest impact)

Obama’s campaign was able to use their data-crunching wizardry to ensure that their TV advertising and door knocking had a laser-like targeting on the swing voters in the swing states. They did this because there was no point in spending money in “safe” states that Obama was certain to win (like Massachusetts), or in states where Romney was certain to win. Similarly, in those swing states (like New Hampshire), once a “certain” Obama voter had been identified, they were added to the “Get Out The Vote” list, but otherwise no further effort was spent persuading those voters. The Obama campaign spent a lot of money trying to understand who these undecided voters were and how to reach them.

Unions, with limited budgets and scarce resources, must relentlessly focus on the key audiences and groups with the biggest impact.

Who are the equivalent of your union’s swing voters? Where do they work? Where do they live?

Invest in field

More and more unions are making substantial investments in growth — which in political parlance is “field organising”. Obama’s campaign mobilised over 2 million members, 10,000 neighbourhood teams, and had over 800 field offices.

All of this added up to over 150 million voter contacts — twice the number the Romney campaign made. Face-to-face contact is the most effective way to mobilise voters, about twice as effective as phone-calls and many times more effective than television ads or direct mail.

Unions already have an advantage here, with delegate networks and shop stewards. Supercharging your volunteers, activists and delegates is a sure-fire way to strengthening the union. The Democrats and Obama campaign invested early and heavily in field organising, and handed a great deal of trust to volunteer neighbourhood team leaders.

A union’s leaders and activists are amongst their greatest assets. Invest in them.

Videos are powerful

The most effective attack ad that Obama released against Romney (in terms of influencing undecided voters’ views on Romney) was the one called “Firms”, showing Romney singing out of tune while showing scenes of outsourcing. This ad was obviously shown on television through paid advertising, but was also viewed online over 2.6 million times, demonstrating that powerful, impactful videos can contribute to shaping how people view issues. (Another good 2012 video was “Stage” by the Priorities USA Super PAC.)

Where the Obama campaign really shone through use of videos is the video content generated for volunteers. There are too many to list, but a few stand-outs include “The Story of “Fired up! Ready to go!”“, “The Story of Us“, and “The Road We’ve Travelled“. These inspirational videos were mostly shown to volunteers and supporters at the many thousands of training sessions held around America.

Behind these amazing videos is not high production values or expensive camera work. It is the compelling stories they tell. Unions have a lot of powerful stories to tell. Online video is a great way to get them out there.

Targeted, localised, personalised

Obama’s Narwhal database meant that his campaign could get hyper-targeted, relevant messages to very specific audiences. Ads were bought within computer games to target Gen Y and Millennials who don’t consume mainstream television media. Spots were run on local radio stations and small cable shows.

Unions may be targeted, localised and personalised when it comes to organisers visiting work sites, but few unions have translated that to direct mail, online/digital or mass media advertising. Many unions still send out untargeted, unpersonalised newsletters, letters and emails to members. For unions running large, big-budget media campaigns, few make use of innovative media buying to localise or target effectively. Those that do may be looking at efficiency in spending (i.e. cheapest way to buy eyeballs or “share of voice”) rather than relevance to audience segments.

Responsive campaigning

The Obama campaign was able to capitalise highly effectively to the many gaffes that Romney threw their way. The biggest example is Romeny’s 47% video. Obama quickly tested various lines and attacks through surrogates and then delivered the best ones himself in stump speeches. In short order, a devastating attack ad — “My Job” — was released. The speed of his campaign (and the Romney campaign) to respond to events was remarkable.

This kind of speed and agility doesn’t require a lot of money, but it does necessitate a campaign philosophy where union leaders and campaigners are willing and able to adapt to new events while still reinforcing the overall campaign strategy. While few unions can afford tracking polls or real-time feedback like national political campaigns, unions can benefit from listening carefully to delegates and activists on the ground.

A word on negative ads

The 2012 campaign was notable for the unusually high level of negative advertising, due partly due to the rise of the Super PACs and partly because Obama’s “hope and change” message was less effective after 4 years and a global financial crisis. Around 60% of election ads were “negative” ads, compared to only 40% in 2008.

Obama went negative early while Romney was still recovering from the primaries — ensuring he was able to paint the Republican as a heartless plutocrat. Meanwhile, most of Romney and the Republican advertising was wasted against Obama because it came in a late rush after most people had made up their mind.

However, going negative is tricky for unions. Most unions want their unions to be positive. They don’t want their employer to be vilified or attacked.

Unions can go negative when it is done carefully and thoughtfully. For example, unions’ criticism of Qantas or Bonds, or James Hardie, have been legitimate and effective at highlighting the awful behaviour of these companies and their executives.

%d bloggers like this: