What can we learn from the US elections?

9:50 am - October 15th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    

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Hello all, I’m now writing to you from Los Angeles, California. No, I’m not on a world tour but here to follow closely and learn from the US elections. Two words why I can’t do that properly from London: ‘Ground Operations’.

Though much has been said about Obama’s race, the dirty tricks, the media circus and polls, less attention has been paid to the boring stuff – the ground operations that actually mobilise voters. Obama’s formidable warchest has enabled him to assemble the biggest Democrat voting operation the party has ever assembled. This should not be sniffed at, because voter mobilisation and getting-out-the-vote on election day was what Republicans excelled at and partly why they kept winning.

My aim is to partly learn about and see in action the bread-and-butter operations such as voter registration efforts (now mostly coming to an end), trying to win them over, building up a voter database, bringing in volunteers and mobilising them and most importantly – getting out the vote on election day.

The other angle is that this is the biggest grassroots connection and mobilisation programme in the US ever. What will that mean for the future of politics in the US. And could that level of energy and those techniques be brought to the UK? I hope there is potential, which is why I’m here to absorb as much as I can.

Both the NY Times and Washington Post recently covered the ground operations. But a better article was written for FireDogLake by Zack Exley:

The “New Organizers” have succeeded in building what many netroots-oriented campaigners have been dreaming about for a decade. Other recent attempts have failed because they were either so “top-down” and/or poorly-managed that they choked volunteer leadership and enthusiasm; or because they were so dogmatically fixated on pure peer-to-peer or “bottom-up” organizing that they rejected basic management, accountability and planning. The architects and builders of the Obama field campaign, on the other hand, have undogmatically mixed timeless traditions and discipline of good organizing with new technologies of decentralization and self-organization.

Win or lose, “The New Organizers” have already transformed thousands of communities—and revolutionized the way organizing itself will be understood and practiced for at least the next generation. Obama must continue to feed and lead the organization they have built—either as president or in opposition. If he doesn’t, then the broader progressive movement needs to figure out how to pick this up, keep it going and spread it to all 50 states.

The second para is important. If Obama does it well, he could build a strong Democrat majority for decades to come and shift the political centre of American politics leftwards.

This model may not work here in two years time for the General Election, but I’m looking four years ahead to the London Mayoral election.

And some more campaign updates
– Jon Stewart has a brilliant take-down of McCain’s attempt to ‘reboot’ his pathetic campaign.

via Jed Report
[UPDATE: YouTube have pulled the vid. Replaced with Comedy Central version – Aaron]

– And here is another good video of National Review (ultra conservative journal) columnist Christopher Buckley, son of the magazine’s founder, explaining why he back Obama and how he was forced to resign after declaring his support. WaPo story.

– Crazy nutjobs at Republican rallies continue to make inciteful remarks

– Conservatives want to dump Palin too

– The third and final presidential debate is tonight.

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,United States

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Reader comments

Obama’s success in getting millions of voters to donate small amounts to help fund his campaign has turned electoral strategy on its head forever. I don’t know how he did it but I’d certainly like to.


I’m so jealous Sunny.


Dear Sunny

I posted about this story last week. Your first hand reporting can only help inform thinking here about what lessons could traverse the pond, and those that just won’t travel.

I’d like to think it will be another nail in the coffin of top-down-political party management, but I’m not holding my breath.

An insight into the gulf between the current Labour Party leadership and its membership on party renewal is provided here:


Peter Kenyon
Labour Party NEC member – constituency section

For anyone who couldn’t watch the above video (YouTube have pulled it), please note it has been replaced by the orig. Comedy Central player. Same video – I have watched them both.

Hi Peter,
here’s hoping for the same!

thanks Aaron 😉

Sunny, could you explain to what extent the neighbourhood organisers are paid and/or are volunteers? Do you know whether their resource:expense ratio has varied from previous elections? Are their no new techniques to be learnt from Obamas ‘ground war’?

It’s nice to know how to collect money for politics and get obsessed with volumes, but it’s also important to know the details of how to spend it wisely.

FiveThirtyEight is doing a series of visits to field offices of both the Obama and McCain campaigns. It’s fascinating stuff, since the McCain offices are blocking attempts to interview McCain volunteers and office after McCain office has “huge phone banks with 40 phones and one lonely caller at their state headquarters three weeks before the election.”

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