How Labor can win in 2013

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An article I wrote for New Matilda has been published. It examines what lessons Labor could learn from the Obama 2012 campaign to win this year’s Federal election. You can read the article here, and I’ve reproduced it below.


This month’s Newspoll boosted Labor’s hopes about the next election. The commentators and Twitterati who got excited didn’t mention that even with the rise in the polls, electoral demise is still on the cards for Labor, with a loss of around five seats projected. Theaverage of the polls (rather than a single poll, which could be a rogue) would see Labor lose as many as 19 seats.

Labor simply cannot rely on “more of the same” tactics that have lead the party to its election-losing position.

Last year, I spent two-and-a-half months working as an Organizing Fellow for the Obama for America in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I saw firsthand how an effective campaign won when all the economic trends were against the President, and when conservative corporate American Super PACs spent over US$567 million in mostly negative advertising.

Obviously, not everything Obama did can translate to Australia. The main difference is that America has voluntary voting and state-run electoral systems. Compulsory voting means that the final week and a half of the US campaign — which is devoted to “Get Out The Vote” — would instead be taken up with identification and persuasion in Australia. Despite this significant difference, the majority of election campaign activity around the world involves convincing people to support their candidate and then to go and vote.

Winning elections, whether it is marginal seats or swing states, comes down to a handful of voters in a handful of neighbourhoods. Elections are won on the margins, where changing just one or two per cent of the vote will change the outcome of the election. In Australia, six seats are held by a margin of less than one percent. If Labor can hold its own marginal seats and win just two of either Boothby, Hasluck or Aston, then it will win the election (not counting seats like Melbourne or Denison, which are already in Labor’s bag when it comes to numbers in parliament).

Labor can win in 2013. Here’s how.

Firstly, Labor needs to significantly invest in field organising.

A strong field organisation is widely regarded in the USA to make a difference of around two per cent. That could sandbag Labor’s eight most marginal seats. Obama had double the number of campaign offices compared to Romney — over 800 in total. His army of field organisers numbered in the thousands. In safe Massachusetts, there were over 20 fulltime organisers and double the number of fulltime volunteers. In New Hampshire, there were over 80 organisers for a voting population of less than a million people. Their primary job was to identify and motivate volunteers, who then spent most of their time contacting their neighbours on behalf of the President.

The Democrats and Obama’s field organisation started operations immediately after theirdrubbing in the 2010 mid-term elections. They invested millions in hiring staff, combining and optimising databases and going door-to-door in key neighbourhoods.

This massive field organisation ensured Obama personally contacted over 126 million people and dominate early voting and Election Day. It was staged from over 800 field offices, powered by over 10,000 neighbourhood teams and 2.2 million volunteers. These field operations, volunteers and offices made a real, tangible difference.

Labor can’t repeat the scale, but it can invest early in field organisers, and not just in marginal seats.

The second thing Labor must do is develop a radically simple message. And stick to it.

Obama’s was “Forward“.  This message was relentlessly repeated by Obama, his Vice President Joe Biden, and the many surrogates who spoke on his behalf, like Bill Clinton and Deval Patrick. Everything Obama talked about was prefaced with the message of “forward”.

In Australia, with its smaller media market, there is relentless pressure to change message throughout a campaign. The short-term attention span of the Press Gallery means that journalists very quickly bore of reporting on announcements and policy, and start to meta-analyse the campaign itself.

The discipline of the Obama campaign was also in the face of staunch criticism over his slogan. But he kept at it — and it cut through.

Whatever message they choose, it must be clear, concrete and very, very simple. And every Labor figure must repeat it constantly. Despite the media pack’s howls.

Obama’s campaign settled on its election winning strategy early on: “Hit Mitt”. While Romney was still emerging from the bruising Republican primaries, Obama saturated the airwaves with negative ads that cast the former Governor as an out-of-touch plutocrat who sent American jobs overseas and wanted to ban abortion.

Romney’s brand was indelibly tarnished, and in all nine battleground states, his image and personal standing with the electorate never recovered.

Labor has done this part well. It should continue to attack Abbott. Labor’s chief asset is that Abbott is mistrusted by the Australian public, and that women especially don’t like him. While there is a view that strongly opposes negative advertising, the simple fact is that it works. In the US, the 2012 campaign was notable for its relentless negativity. Unlike in 2008, Obama’s positive to negative ad ratio was around 60 per cent negative; and most of his negative ads were simply a lot more effective than Romney’s.

Labor must continue to run a mass media campaign against Abbott. Taking a leaf from Obama, Labor should start running television ads against the Liberals very early.

Obama’s digital wizardry — the Big Data Revolution — is much written about, as is itspossible impact in Australia. Whatever software ends up being used (and Labor really should use the Obama database, called Votebuilder, which I was told is available if they want it), its purpose must be to empower the volunteers and field organisers to make phone calls and knock on doors. This laser targeting gave Obama the edge.

Old fashioned conversations were supercharged by ensuring that volunteers only spoke to people who were genuinely undecided; this was achieved by combining electoral roll data with scores of other data sources, such as consumer databases, previous volunteer and donor records and allied organisations’ membership lists, all run through powerful algorithms. In the entire two and a half months I canvassed swing voters in New Hampshire, I spoke to precisely two Republicans. Everyone else was either undecided or ‘leaning’ towards Obama. The data was simply that good.

Obama changed the electoral map. The election was ultimately won by a rainbow coalition of women, minorities and the under-29s. Over 1.7 million new people registered to vote with the help of the Obama campaign.

The AEC recently launched a campaign to get 1.5 million unenrolled Australians on to the roll. Labor needs to lead the campaign to find those young people and minorities who aren’t enrolled, and get them on. In Boothby for example, the result was decided by 1200 voters. Registration drives in those key marginals help expand the “universe” of voters that Labor can then target for persuasion.

Strategy at its core is about the allocation of limited resources, and at its most basic it involves the concentration of forces into an overpowering mass against your opponent. The modern campaign aerial warfare of television and radio ads, and direct mail is less and less effective to an increasingly cynical and disinterested public.

The last two US elections have shown that campaigns are won on the ground. It was once the case in Australia too and can be again for Labor.

4 responses to “How Labor can win in 2013”

  1. Don Sutherland Avatar
    Don Sutherland

    Your empahasis on “field organising” and gettng it started early is correct. It might pay to recall that we have our direct and positive experience with that: it was called “Your Rights at Work”. But, YR@W was started by union activists in a small number of seats as face to face organising activity, before it merged into the ACTU national campaign that involeved a big spend on media. This was in the absence of a credible campaign by the neolaboral ALP. Eventually, the ALP got it under some control, with the help of some in the union movement, but that’s another story.

  2. Andy Alcock Avatar
    Andy Alcock

    Hi Alex

    I tend to agree with Don Sutherland about the Your Rights at Work campaign. This was started by union activists and made into a major campaign by the ACTU. The ALP was able to benefit from those activities.

    What concerns me about campaigning, whether it is in the US or Australia, is the lack of commitment to ordinary working people by the right wing and pseudo left of the ALP in Australia and the Democrats in the US.

    I have been involved in many election post mortem discussions over the years and have been frustrated at how many key ALP apparachiks do not raise issues beyond promoting a favourable image and smart use of electronic gadgetry.

    Many Australian and American voters want to know what political parties are going to do to promote economic social justice, peace (reduction in the huge spending of armaments, stopping the use of drones and not starting wars for the US Military Industrial Extreme Right Wing Fundamentalist Complex, which really dictates US global policy), stopping the support for the criminal behaviour by the Israeli and Indonesian administrations and environmental responsibility.

    Most progressives internationally wanted Obama to win because Romney holds a far more right position than Obama. However, having won, we have heard a lot about gay rights and changing gun ownership laws. These are important issues, but we have heard nothing about action being taken on the issues I have mentioned above.

    Most Australians and Americans are sick of watching their young people coming home in coffins because they were killed in one of the many wars started by the US regime to steal resources from other people or to tighten its grip on blobal power.

    These people want commitment from parties like the ALP and the Democrats to doing something positive for peace, social justice, human rights and environmental responsibility.

    Employing the latest natty electronic gadgetry and public strategies are also important, but it has to be about important political goals as well.

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Andy — my observation of the Obama campaign was that almost everyone was a genuine, progressive person who cared deeply about where their country was going. I can’t speak to the politics of the campaign’s senior leaders (e.g. Messina, Bird, Obama, etc) but left-wing activists in Australia simply can’t dismiss the Obama campaign or paint it as divorced from working people.

      There were over 2.2 million volunteers on the campaign. It was the most people powered movement in history. Despite the digital wizardry, what the campaign did was focus on old-fashioned personal contact, one-on-one conversations between neighbours. We all should be applauding that.

      There is a real difference between the campaign and the Administration in the White House.

      1. Andy Alcock Avatar
        Andy Alcock

        Thanks for getting back, Alex.

        Please understand that I am not trying to dismiss the Obama campaign

        I am sure that you are correct in that heaps of genuinely progressive Americans supported Obama and they worked bloody hard for him to be returned. It would have been a disaster if Romney had won.

        Similarly, in 2007 during the Australian elections, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians campaigned strongly against WorkChoices and this helped the ALP to get back into office. I know because I was one of them.

        What I am trying to point out, though, is how do we get these people who are elected to actually stick to their promises to ordinary working people.

        There are many progressive Australians who have been working for a more peaceful, safer, more compassionate world and they are sick of elected representatives who sell out those people who helped them to win office.

        It is not just a matter of getting the ALP re-elected; it is also more important to get its MPs to carry out more human polices to help the ordinary people who elect them and making Australia be a more responsible nation in international affairs.

        There are several examples:

        continuing to support US resource wars

        ordinary Australians are angry that so many young Australians continue to die in such immoral and unnecessary wars

        continuing to support US regimes like Israel and Indonesia that are a threat to world peace and commit genocide and gross human rights abuses
        continuing the Howard policies of the intervention in Aboriginal lands and the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers
        cutting back the allowances for single parents
        being more innovative in protecting the environment