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