This article was first published on the Young Fabians blog
There has been substantial coverage and analysis of the 2012 Obama campaign amongst UK progressives since his victory in early November. As a veteran of the Nevada ‘ground game’, I think it makes a lot of sense to pay close attention to the way the campaign was run. I certainly learned a huge amount about innovative campaigning techniques during the two months I spent in the USA, and I am keen to tell Young Fabians and Labour Party members about my experiences.
I do, however, have a concurrent concern that we are putting too much emphasis on importing ideas and techniques directly from the USA. Hackneyed as the George Bernard Shaw quote is, we are ‘two countries separated by a common language’. If I noticed anything whilst I was out there, it was that I was first and foremost a foreigner. The UK still retains an utterly unique cultural identity to that of the United States and our political campaigning culture should continue to reflect this.
The obscene amount of money washing around the 2012 Presidential campaign is the most obvious demonstration of something to which we certainly should not aspire. Yes, the money paid for flashy online databases, branded t-shirts, iPhones and laptops, but it also paid for innumerable attack-ads and jet fuel for Air Force One to zip Obama to countless glitzy rallies and media events. I witnessed a vast amount of waste on the campaign and it was far from a ‘sustainable’ operation.
The famous ‘ground game’ should also be viewed with a critical eye. Just because it worked so well for Obama, it does not mean that it would translate well in Britain. The campaign relied on a greater level of intrusion than we are accustomed to in the UK. As a canvasser, it was a gift to know the name, age, voting history and family connections of the residents behind every door that I knocked on. But I was also uncomfortably aware that we were being extremely intrusive, almost ‘big brother-like’ at times.
Furthermore, it is all too easy to mythologise the community organising techniques used in the campaign and consequently to lose sight of quite how tightly things were being controlled from the centre. Targets, techniques and strategies were constantly being rolled out from HQ – this was not grassroots politics in its truest sense.
Rather, the campaign leadership took methods from community organising, combined them with data analysis fit for an intelligence agency, and used their new hybrid concoction to their advantage. Clever? Undoubtedly. Effective? Massively. But surely a rather strange fit for the British Labour movement.
Finally, whilst senior Labour politicians continue to hone their public speaking skills and improve their media personas, they must be careful not to imitate the Americans too closely. Let’s be honest, ‘fired up and ready to go’ just sounds cringeworthy
in a British accent! Most importantly, good presentation and confident delivery should never be used as a substitute for the quality of what politicians are actually saying. We expect different demonstrations of gravitas from our public figures than on the other side of the Atlantic, something that it’s all too easy to forget.
Mind you, Obama rolling out Katy Perry at his political rallies was a genuine stroke of genius. Nothing better than Katy in a skin-tight ballot paper dress to get floating voters to the polls. I know she’s American but Ed, maybe it’s already time for ‘your people’ to start talking to ‘her people’…
As many of you will already know, last week I finally returned to London after a two-month adventure in the USA working on the Obama campaign. Thank you to all of you who followed my Obamarama! blog (the posts are still available to read below) and who sent me messages of support!
Once the campaign was over I decided to stay in the USA for a few more weeks. I spent 10 days in Berkeley CA, soaking up the liberal progressivism of the town (which mainly involved me sitting in indie cafes drinking coffee and trying to look intellectual) whilst genuine intellectuals got on with their daily lives around me.
I also took the opportunity to get fit and healthy after 7 weeks of solid work, doughnut-eating and caffeine consumption. Berkeley is certainly the place to detox. Plenty of delicious fresh food and fresh air. I carried on with my NHS choices ‘Couch to 5K’ running plan – I’m sure my virtual coach Laura never imagined coaxing me round the grand athletic track of UC Berkeley!
Whilst away I also wrote a couple of articles about my experience on the campaign, one of which was published by the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’. It’s still available for a read here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/21/obama-2012-election-ground-game-won-nevada
I have never worked as hard as I did during the 6 weeks that I spent on this campaign – it was more physically and emotionally challenging than anything I have experienced before. From the anxiety of knocking on every door, to walking for miles in the heat, to the long hours in the office and ensuring that our volunteers were well looked-after. In the last few days we were lucky to get any sleep at all!
On the stakes
This election was a crossroads for the USA. From womens’ rights to education, the economy to foreign policy, the two options on the table were so fundamentally different.
For this reason, it wasn’t just about ‘winning’ per se, it was about the potential for suffering if we didn’t pull it off. The desperate need to get Obama re-elected was tangible from the moment I arrived, and the dedication of colleagues around me was nothing short of inspirational.
A couple of things that campaign volunteers told me will always stick in my mind. One retired woman looked me straight in the eye and said ‘We must never go back to the days when women are throwing themselves down the stairs because they can’t access family planning’. An African American lady also told me that she would ‘die’ rather than see discrimination against her community reignite. ‘We’ve come too far now, we will stand up and fight to the death for these rights’.
The eyes of the world were on us and we could feel that pressure.
In 2008 he was the ‘change’ candidate – but things were very different in 2012. Obama was the incumbent President and had served during historically harsh economic times. Contrary to what some argued, this election was not a foregone conclusion. After the very negative popular reaction to the first Presidential debate, the race became tight between Obama and Romney. Many diehard supporters never wavered in their confidence in Obama’s victory, but I certainly felt the pressure notch-up at that point!
Nevada is a unique place. The State has been hit extremely harshly by the economic crisis – in particular the rate of home foreclosures is very high. The population of Las Vegas is transient; short-term rental apartments are easy to find and much of the population works several jobs with antisocial hours.
All of the above factors made Las Vegas a particularly challenging place in which to organise. Despite this, the Obama campaign had a fabulous team of volunteers – some of whom dedicated many months of their lives to ensuring that Nevada turned blue for another four years.
On the ‘ground game’
The Obama field effort in this election has received much attention in the press – and rightly so. It was the efforts that the Democrats exerted on ground level that so markedly distinguished our side from the Romney camp.
In battleground states, the Obama campaign changed the face of the electorate. In Nevada, they registered over 90,000 new voters in the run up to the election. Many of these new registrants were Democrats. It was in breaking down the bureauracy to enfranchisement for so many thousands of people that the real victory lay. It was so exciting to talk to first-time voters about the value of voting and where and when they should go and cast their ballot.
The Field Teams with which I worked were the most energetic and hardworking teams I could have imagined. No matter how tired or dispirited they were after a long day knocking on doors, their drive was never diminished. The Nevadan volunteers (and those that travelled in from Arizona and California) were similarly dedicated and this victory would not have been achieved without them.
On the future
American politics is a complex beast – and this titanic victory has not changed that. But for the progressive half of America this victory has provided hope and belief once again. Belief, in particular, that sheer hard work is still more valuable than money. Obama and his administration are still facing a recalcitrant Republican party and there are many many challenges ahead. But for now, at least, we can all bask in the warm glow of victory.
We had a phone call from Obama on Wednesday morning to thank us for all our work…and he cried! You can see it here:
I’d love to say that we knew he was crying, but we were listening to it in the car extremely tired after so many short nights back-to-back…so I only found out about this tonight!