Obama's campaign to retain White House began just weeks after 2008 win

Thu, Nov 8, 2012, 00:00

The strategy:Early yesterday morning, minutes before he took the stage in Chicago for his victory speech, Barack Obama sent out a mass email to his supporters.

“I want you to know that this wasn’t fate, and it wasn’t an accident. You made this happen,” the message said.

“You organised yourselves block by block. You took ownership of this campaign five and 10 dollars at a time. And when it wasn’t easy, you pressed forward.”

Obama has always exaggerated the role of small donations in his political campaigns, which have been as successful as those of any Republican in extracting massive sums from Wall Street. But it is quite true that the hyper-local, “block by block” nature of his campaign this time played a crucial role in his re-election.

Powerful coalition

The re-election campaign began in December 2008, weeks after Obama defeated John McCain by creating a powerful coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, college-educated whites and young voters.

While Obama was putting together his cabinet, a small group of campaign aides retreated to Chicago to conduct a postmortem of the campaign that had just ended.

The team, led by Jeremy Bird, interviewed thousands of organisers and volunteers in an effort to determine what strategies and tactics had worked best in mobilising supporters.

“We brought them in in small groups. We looked at everything,” Bird told the New Yorker magazine last month.

“What did we learn about organising the African American community? What did we learn about organising the Latino community? What did we learn about organising rural communities? What did we learn about organising and management in general?”

Obama’s huge financial advantage over McCain in 2008 had allowed him to build an impressive network of field offices in swing states.

Bird’s postmortem concluded that the most effective way of reaching voters was not through television advertising, direct mail or mass emails, but through individual human contact. Automated phone calls have much less impact than calls made by a real person and blanketing neighbourhoods with fliers is almost useless.

Among the campaign’s most important discoveries was that, whenever volunteers were in teams of more than 10 people, they started to feel more like cogs in a wheel than real political activists and were more likely to quit.

In April 2011, while the Republicans were still tearing one another apart in a bitter primary fight, the Obama campaign started building a vast national network of field offices. Drawing on the lessons of 2008, they encouraged campaign staff to target places like barber shops and beauty salons, which often provide a social focus in African American and Latino neighbourhoods.

At the same time, the campaign used sophisticated algorithms to crunch data on individual voters drawn from everything from cable television companies and shopping websites to social media sites such as Facebook and even picture-sharing sites such as Instagram and Tumblr.

Voters were classified both in terms of their likelihood to support Obama and the chances that they would vote at all.

Traditionally, campaigns determine likelihood to vote on the basis of vote history – if they voted in 2008 and in the midterm elections of 2012, they were more likely to vote in 2012. Young voters had such a short voting history, however, that traditional methods could not predict future behaviour.

Using statistics, the Obama campaign identified other factors, such as income and housing type, that tended to indicate a likelihood to vote.

They found that voters who lived with others who had a history of voting regularly were themselves more likely to turn out.

Campaign focus

Most campaigns focus on voters that are clearly identified as supporters and who have a medium-range likelihood of turning out – on the basis that those at the top of the range don’t need encouragement and those at the bottom are a lost cause.

The Obama campaign targeted more of those at the lower end of the range, however, by encouraging activists to rate each voter’s responsiveness to their initial contact.

In states that allowed early voting, the campaign focused on getting the least motivated voters to the polls long before November 6th.

By last weekend, Obama’s team had opened 5,117 get-out-the-vote “staging locations” in the key battleground states, located in supporters’ homes, shops, businesses and anywhere else that could serve as a hub. In a memo sent to “interested parties” last Saturday, Bird was already confident that the millions of conversations Obama volunteers had conducted with persuadable voters would bear fruit.

“Our volunteers have made 125,646,479 personal phone calls or door knocks – not counting robo-calls on auto-diallers, mail, literature drops or any other non-volunteer, non- personal contacts,” he said.

“Many field campaigns have historically favoured quantity over quality; we do not. In each conversation we have with a voter, our goal is to make a difference.

“These are not phone calls made from a call centre; they are done at the local level by our neighbourhood team leaders, members and volunteers who are talking to people in their communities.”