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Obama’s ground operations explained


11:49 am - November 14th 2008

by Sunny Hundal    


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I went to the U.S. a month ago because I wanted to see how the Obama campaign worked and what we could learn from it to apply here in British politics. It’s worth noting that Obama massively built on what was pioneered during Howard Dean’s campaign four years ago (See Joe Trippi’s book: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).

More importantly, it was a model popularised and pushed by left-wing American blogs, notably Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo. It has always been the left-wing blogs that pushed hard to raise money online and popularise the practice among Democrats (hardly any popular right-wing blogs in the US raise funds for political candidates), focus hard on specific campaigns and encouraged readers to get organised and involved, and they have been the most vocal in pushing the idea that Democrats have to be more aggressive in challenging their image and avoiding traps Republicans lay down for them on various issues.

My point here is: there’s no reason why we can’t spearhead something in the UK, with the obvious adjustments necessary for British politics.

The Obama campaign can be divided into two main areas:
1 – message/image (David Axelrod) and;
2 – ground operations (David Plouffe and Jon Carson).

The ground operations can broadly be divided into three phases: registering new voters, encouraging them to vote early and mobilisation efforts on election day.

The point to note that the Obama campaign could pay people to register voters for them and collect information about those voters. It also bought information on voters from other organisations (Democractic party, MoveOn, Catalist, Trade Unions, Sierra Club etc). There’s an excellent article on Catalist here that any tech / politico absolutely must read, on the technical infrastructure behind voter information.

All throughout these three phases information is constantly collected on voters and filled online to VoteBuilder. Chicago, where the campaign was based, was updated every night not only with how many calls were made and doors knocked, but also on how those voters leaned and whether they had voted.

Targeting
As the election got closer, that information was pruned and highly targeted to specific areas in specific states. On the day of the election, volunteers would note down who had voted already (this is openly published by election officials) and let head office know so they would know who still had to vote – so people could contact them. This was known as Project Houdini. More here.

Targeting specific voters is key, geographically and in terms of the issues that interest them. The campaign not only focused on economic issues (tax cuts) but also social issues where it mattered.

But more importantly it was necessary to identify which voters were Obama supporters so they could be contacted on election day and before to go out and vote, and which voters were McCain supporters so we could persuade / avoid them (depending on their relative importance on how close the state was). In certain states like Pennsylvania it was only important to turn out the Democratic vote.

GOTV
Getting Out The Vote was the key driver behind everything, simply because people from poorer backgrounds are less likely to vote. Furthermore, right-wingers are affiliated to organisations such as churches or the NRA that encourage them heavily to vote, while similar orgs on the left (unions) have been declining in number.

The Obama campaign eschewed ‘liason officers’ for different constituencies (Latinos, blacks, gays, Asians etc) for a pure focus on registration, information gathering and GOTV.

Volunteering
Accordingly, work was split up into various phases. The initial phase for volunteers was about registering new voters and gathering information about them.

Once the voter registration period was closed (a month before election in most states), the work was split into calling voters to find out their voting intentions, persuading them to vote Obama, or marking them off as McCain supporters. Every night all the collected info was entered into the online central database.

Once the early voting period started (18th Oct in many states), we would call them to let them know about nearest early voting locations just so they’d be more willing to vote.

Door-to-door canvassing was also an integral part of GOTV. In the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Obama campaign knocked on over a million doors each in the last weekend alone to encourage Democrats to go out and vote. In these cases too, knowing some information about voters (whether they’re sympathisers) is also key.

Face to face contact is better than phone calls, but in my opinion less productive. If you don’t have as many volunteers, phone calling is perhaps a better option. The Obama campaign also made brilliant use of text messaging, which is explained here.

I made calls, I collated data and I knocked on doors. I even watched polls on election day. I learnt a lot. But the most important lesson is obvious – information and good organisation is key.

More on how this could apply to the UK later. Comments and questions welcome.

(this interview with Jon Carson is also worth watching)

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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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Reader comments


Which political party would an LC-spearheaded initiative be designed to benefit?

The ground operations can broadly be divided into three phases: registering new voters, encouraging them to vote early and mobilisation efforts on election day.

This is one area we run into real challenges in the UK. I’ve done voter registration is various forms now for half a decade and it’s real hard graft. No council knows how to do it effectively and the Electoral Commission have experimented with a number of outreach and advisory boards situations to little effect over the last 5-6 years. They’re now embarking on a new initiative to train local authorities electoral services…

Running on road operations is tough, season dependent, you’d need an army of volunteers and be lucky if they manage more than 20-30 new registrations for an entire afternoon (the EC tried this a few years back, they had a team of about five or six people – if memory serves – they went out in a town centre in London and only registered 40 people between them over the course of five hours).

Voting early, well that’s postal voting in this country. Anyone want to do a mapping exercise of where postal voting is highest and see if there’s any correlation with ‘voting irregularities’ or problems with disappearing votes?

The third part is perhaps where this could come alive if we have the resources, getting people to vote is, in my experience, a bit easier if you provide transport etc or are out in key areas with ad vans, on road mega-phone announcers etc.

Do emulate the Obama campaign, you need highly skilled organisers, resources, and a significant motivating factor (be it removing a government, an impressive candidate, or political climate with can be reduced into a popular policy).

Anyway, those are just a few of my first thoughts, obviously they can be cut up in a number of ways (for example, say LC decide to back a few progressive candidates we’d have a far more effective campaign as it’d mean only a handful of seats to cover…), and they are a bit off the cuff!

Which political party would an LC-spearheaded initiative be designed to benefit?

That’s too narrow a question. In my opinion it should be about supporting progressive candidates (which means a working definition LC bloggers and commenters can get on board with) across all the parties/indy candidates LC feels comfortable supporting.

Imagine an ideal world: we raise money and support a selection of candidates, they are elected and then owe the UK netroots and form a Parliamentary caucus which we can influence….

One thing that struck me was how similar in practice the ground operations the Obama campaign ran were to ground operations the Labour Party run in the UK, although better resourced, with more staff and more volunteers.

>It’s worth nothing that Obama

Noting?

> More on how this could apply to the UK later.

Echoing Justin, there’s a key question here:

are you talking about targetting particular groups to further the interests of particular political programmes/parties or building a vigorous grassroots politics across the board.

Either is fine, but it needs to be clear.

Matt

Leon:

you’d need an army of volunteers and be lucky if they manage more than 20-30 new registrations for an entire afternoon

But surely the massive difference here is that, unlike the US, we’re mostly registered (and re-registered) automatically by the local council? There’s an obligation on LAs to ensure the register is as up-to-date as possible, that doesn’t apply over there.

I know that a few months back an employee of the council knocked on our door as we’d forgotten to post the form back, confirmed Jennie’s details and took mine. That has a distinct benefit in terms of participation (it’s rare that someone that wants to vote on the day isn’t registered) but does also mean parties have less up-front info on newly registered voters (which Sunny says they used later on for targetting). When campaigning locally, I know that most houses in my area are on the register, and we’re in a ‘poor’ district with lower registration %age than most.

Different country, different problem–I know a lot of people numerically aren’t registered, but as a %age it’s a lot smaller than in the US.

—-

One thing that does strike me is how ground up/grassroots style the campaign was: Sunny’s highlighted it before, but it’s very similar to what I’ve experienced from within the Lib Dems–given that they combined the old Liberal pavement politics system with a much more professional voter identification/targetting system from the SDP side that doesn’t really surprise me too much.

Labour uses local activists and volunteers, but a huge amount of their structure is on national adverts paid for by major donors: Obama eschewed this route and went for the ground up, volunteer led and small-donor paid for system that I’m much more comfortable with.

As for who we at LC could back? Justin, Unity and myself discussed the idea of a campaign for a hung parlt/constitutional reform agenda a few years back: given the current polling numbers a hung Parlt is likely the best Labour can hope for, and the more MPs elected that favour a constitutional convention and genuine consultative devolution and reform (especially electoral reform) the better in my view.

So maybe a few key points: back a convention, favour electoral reform, will vote to abandon the NIR, retain/improve the choice option re termination?

If we agree on that, and pick the best candidate in each marginal that supports that agenda that, crucially, has a chance of winning?

But surely the massive difference here is that, unlike the US, we’re mostly registered (and re-registered) automatically by the local council? There’s an obligation on LAs to ensure the register is as up-to-date as possible, that doesn’t apply over there.

It’s a real mixed picture. Some councils are on the case, with people knocking on doors etc. Others send out forms and register those that return them. You have to remember that a lot of people move (especially students) too renting privately.

I agree that LC should decide on which progressive candidates we back on merit.

If they’re Lib Dems. Fine.

If they’re Greens. Fine

If they’re Labour. *holds nose* Fine.

If they’re Tories… I have no problem in backing a liberal Tory if he’s the best candidate. But denying the more socially illiberal Tories a majority is essential.

The thing is: If someone did build such a network, it would be very valuable. Parties would be keen to tap into it. This is where the progressive agenda comes in…

Aaron:

If they’re Tories… I have no problem in backing a liberal Tory if he’s the best candidate. But denying the more socially illiberal Tories a majority is essential.

Precisely. Two years ago I was actively planning on an anti-Labour campaign, things have completely changed since then. In seats with egregious abusers of power that’ve voted and campaigned for 90 days/the NIR, etc, I’d rather put pressure on with a genuinely anti-authority ‘liberal’ Conservative like Alan Duncan.

But identifying the true nasties within Labour and also confirming the truly liberal within the Conservatives’ll be incredibly difficult. So it’s likely we’d need to tread very carefully in that area: that the Conservative and Unionist party contains a fair number of people from the Whig/Liberal tradition within British politics is largely unknown to a lot of those on the left, they got drowned out under Thatcher and are only now making a comeback, even then carefully–the aging backwoods membership causes them too many problems.

One thing I’d really like to see; a site like this:
http://www.voteforenvironment.ca/

Canadian tactical voting site–run by Green party members, not very effective, but it could’ve been if it had a broader appeal and was promoted by the left media/blogs a bit more.

Could we do similar?

Justin, I think Leon and Aaron have answered your important question. I don’t think its possible for us to put our eggs in one basket right now. Especially given the state of the Labour and the Libdems. I’m more in favour of a progressive candidates strategy right now.

I just wanted to write this up to get it out of my system – just to give people an idea of what happened in the USA. I was planning a different piece on how we can apply this to the UK.

I’m more in favour of a progressive candidates strategy right now.

Yep, me too, also I think people should be realistic about the number of them they think LC can effectively back/support/build a campaign for.

be realistic about the number of them

Given the nature of first past the post, the maximum we’d need to even think about is 200 of the 650, although 100 would probably about the ideal target–I suspect that’d be viable as an option though. It wouldn’t just be LC after all, there are a lot of others out there sympathetic.

Sunny, at some point when you’ve time perhaps you could outline your problems witht he direction the Lib Dems are headed? I know my interview write up with Clegg is overdue, but the current clear liberal/leftwards shift in policy is very much something I favour.

It wouldn’t just be LC after all, there are a lot of others out there sympathetic.

That remains to be seen, I’m coming from the view that LC would lead this and put it together (like the Coalition for Choice).

14. Mike Killingworth

Are we going to have a discussion at some point at which people nominate “progressive” candidates? And what will be the ground-rules for it?

Oh, absolutely, we can and should lead it, but we’d have support: think of all the Lib Dem blogs out there–in Lib Dem/Tory fights that are winnable/defendable, they’d be on board completely. There’d also be a number of seats where it’s Lib Dem vs decent Labour, in which case we should stay out of it I think: I’ve no idea who’d be challenging Bob M-A or Diane Abbott, but in both cases I want them back in the house if they run again.

There’re also other well read sites (like ChickYog and Bloggerheads as examples) that have a reach beyond ours, and a lot of other partizan blogs and campaigns like No2ID &c that we could bring aboard if we’re careful about it.

The other key areas would be identifying seats where Labour can’t hold but a different ‘liberal’ candidate could: I’m convinced they’re doomed in my own seat from local polling, the sitting (bloody good) MP is standing down and her replacement candidate is awful, whereas ours is very good. If I didn’t think we could win there are several bordering seats I could go fight in, including some held by very distasteful New Labour apparatchiks. But I’m going to put a lot of time into fighting to keep the Tories out here, which means backing the Lib Dem from a notional third place.

That sort of seat is very much predicated on local knowledge and local results–there are likely many others elsewhere that could be similar, but finding them? Hard work.

16. Mike Killingworth

[15] There is a lot of info on seats and candidates on Anthony Wells’ site:

http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/

And Bob Marshall-Andrews is standing down. We should ask him to join us to pass his time in retirement (although I suspect he’ll go back to the Bar).

I think it is worth Liberal Conspirators beginning from the premise that having any signifcant impact (from scratch) at an election in 18 months will be pretty challenging for a web-based initiative which is entirely voluntary (and which is trying to forge a broad coalition across people of different views and affiliations).

So my advice would include
– focus on a relatively small number of constituencies (I think much closer to 20 than 200, completely plucking a number out of the air): the most likely way to reduce impact is to have a large list, but with relatively little following from it other than an “LC endorsement”
– try to identify very clearly what impact you are trying to have, and what practical resources can be mobilised aimed at influencing those particular seats.
– try to coordinate efforts, early in the strategy-setting phase, with other groups with similar views and goals. (There may be several groups which might struggle to make much impact individually, but which could do more if they coordinated).

The scale point (number of targets) is about
– whether it is possible to have real presence, reach and impact with significant groups and voters in those constituencies
– be looking for ways to have and verify that there was an impact
– aiming to build greater presence across later electoral cycles, building on successes and learning from what didn’t work.

Just taking my own partisan hat off for a moment – I would have thought that one relatively unifying principle for a group like LC which tries to bring together people from different progressive perspectives (includign different parties – Green, Labour, LibDem and no party) could well prove to be around helping to mobilise a defence for some of those LibDems who are facing strong Tory challenges.

Within that group, people might have views as to priorites/trade-offs between:
– constituencies which might end
– particular LibDems given their record on specific issues
– particular Tory opponents (eg socially conservative; Eurosceptic; slash spending)
– particular areas where LC might for some reason have a comparative advantage in being able to influence.

I do not have any disagreement in principle with those who will want to see a broader range of critieria than that. (Clearly, as a Labour member, I would especially advocate that you support Labour MPs with strong records on poverty and inequality issues, as well as other liberal-left causes. I can imagine a group like LC will find it fairly difficult to agree on what the criteria are, in terms of defending Labour MPs, supporting Green candidates, supporting LibDems against Labour/Greens, etc, though it might well end up wanting to do some or all of these things too).

There may well be several fairly tight LibDem/Tory contests; some of those might look relatively influenceable on a short timescale for a group like LC. While some Labour/Green/other partisans involved in those areas and seats will legitimately have mixed feelings about your choosing that goal – as I could myself – I imagine that this might prove to be one goal of relatively broad agreement across a good part of the LC constituency and audience.

Was trying to say “Constituences which might end up as the closest races” … personally I think there is some sense in giving that a relatively high priority.

what Sunder wrote.

MattW – thanks for correcting that typo! I’ll get back to the UK scene soon.

MatGB – yes, you’re right. We need a more in-depth discussion of where the Libdems are heading. We need to exchange emails about this.

What Sunder says above is eminently sensible. I’m not looking at a seat of 200 – that would be very difficult given our limited resources.

We could draw up a list of seats we would like to see positive results for anyway, just as a guide but if we want to mobilise it would have to be for specific seats.

I’ve not laid out any criteria yet – I’m still going over campaign strategies and ideas at this moment. I would like to invite people’s thoughts and comments at this stage, because I’m not saying ‘this is what we should do’… rather I’m saying this is what happened. I think certain things can be learnt from the Obama campaign and applied to us in the UK. And much more will have to be improvised as we go along.

Thinking that the linked article (here), raises concerns re. data protection laws.

Could a political party really collate such data without contravening the law?

I know that the Tories in the past did import such IT technology from Australia, although not sure what came of it.

I’m not looking at a seat of 200 – that would be very difficult given our limited resources.

I gotta be honest, in terms of LC organised and led I doubt the number of candidates it could effectively support will be much higher than ten, maybe even something like 5.

Once the filtering of ‘consensus’ takes place the number will drop, we don’t know how each candidate and (if they have them) their local parties will react to LC effectively trying to get them elected either….

@3 Leon: In my opinion it should be about supporting progressive candidates (which means a working definition LC bloggers and commenters can get on board with) across all the parties/indy candidates LC feels comfortable supporting.

I guess that rules out anyone who supports ID cards and ContactPoint then.

Here’s my minimal shopping list:

– end the War On Civil Liberties

– reform the benefits system so that it doesn’t discourage work and no-one pays a marginal tax rate of more than 50%

– make housing affordable so that buying a house doesn’t cost more than it costs to build a house. To do this, it is necessary to build lots of houses, overruling the objections of nimbys when they occur.

Any future government that supports these — almost regardless of their other policies — will be a great improvement on the current Labour and previous Tory administrations.

@22 Leon: in terms of LC organised and led I doubt the number of candidates it could effectively support will be much higher than ten, maybe even something like 5 […] we don’t know how each candidate and (if they have them) their local parties will react to LC effectively trying to get them elected either….

I think we need to take a long term view on this. If LC do succeed in getting people elected in a few constituencies in the next general election, the political elite will become a lot more receptive to people like us in future, thus they will be eager to court us and support the sorts of policies that we favour.

24. Mike Killingworth

Suffering a bout of insomnia so apologies in advance if the tone is a little on the waspish side…

[23] Calamat suggests we support candidates who

Here’s my minimal shopping list:

– end the War On Civil Liberties

– reform the benefits system so that it doesn’t discourage work and no-one pays a marginal tax rate of more than 50%

– make housing affordable so that buying a house doesn’t cost more than it costs to build a house. To do this, it is necessary to build lots of houses, overruling the objections of nimbys when they occur.

The first is too vague to be meaningful; the second can only be achieved by scrapping the benefit system altogether (if that’s what you mean, say so – but don’t expect too much support on this blog) and as for the third… land is a factor of production and you can only set its cost at zero by nationalising it, presumably without compensation.

You might as well go the whole hog and suggest we only support candidates who also want to abolish money…

@24 Mike Killingworth (refering to my post @23): The first is too vague to be meaningful; the second can only be achieved by scrapping the benefit system altogether (if that’s what you mean, say so – but don’t expect too much support on this blog) and as for the third… land is a factor of production and you can only set its cost at zero by nationalising it, presumably without compensation.

Taking each issues separately:

1. yes you’re right I’m being vague. In terms of concrete policy commitments I’d settle for: scrapping ID cards, their associated database, ContactPoint, and plans to monitor/store all Internet and phone communications. I don’t expect any electable politician to go as far as I would like on civil liberties.

2. we should scrap the benefits system and replace it with a citizens’ income

3. land with planning permission trades at vastly greater prices than land without, because planning regulations artificially restrict the supply of the former. This means that people on average and below average incomes are forced to subsidize the rich, a situation which neither liberals nor leftists should support. It also makes us all as a nation poorer. Removing planning regulations would make the economy richer: imagine a small overpopulate island where suddenly loads of new land appeared next to it — that’s roughly the effect that loosening planning regulations would have.

(If you are still not convinced these policies are practical, let me know and I’ll explain them further in a blog post).

26. Mike Killingworth

Okay, let’s let the first one go – I’m pretty much in agreement with your proposals although I don’t really know much about the pros and cons of ContactPoint.

The Citizens’ Income is an attractive idea at first sight, and the pros and cons seem to me to be well rehearsed here in the article by De Wispelaere and Stirton – you have to scroll about a quarter of the way down the page. In essence, you can either have simplicity or you can have targetting but you can’t have both. Yet to be politically acceptable both are required. In fact, it’s a lot worse than this – the article doesn’t discuss the relationship between a Citizens’ Income and the minimum wage (although I daresay you would scrap the latter). If CI is set at the minimum wage level there is a clear perverse incentive; if it is set lower it is an admission that people who cannot work (through disability, caring responsibility etc) should live below the poverty line. And it gets worse: the debate is conducted as though citizens and the labour pool are one and the same, when they patently aren’t – the latter is Europe-wide. If CI is doable, it is probably only doable at EU level, not by individual national governments.

As far as your last point goes, again, there is a reason why, despite the fact that we have had governments with a bias towards markets and against central planning for the last 30 years. the land-use planning system marches proudly on. And it isn’t simply the political power of NIMBYism. Zoning is intrinsic to the maintenance of any level of quality in the urban environment, and regulation is also needed to protect areas of high-quality landscape such as National Parks and “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. You may be happy for the Lake District to be covered with trailer parks, but few others will be. Doubtless if you had the slightest evidence for your assertion that the planning system acts as a transfer payment from the poor to the rich, you would have linked to it. “Loosening” planning regulations sounds like the sort of sloppy talk that appears in Party manifestoes where it could mean anything from, say, a blanket permission for people to carry out e-business from private homes to exempting sufficiently large Party donors from the regulations applied to everyone else. When developers, as they periodically do, blame the planning system for a shortage of land, they mean that it operates against the business cycle. (When land is cheap, as now, they don’t have the cash to buy it and when they have the cash it’s expensive.) This problem arises because we think the private sector is the appropriate housebuilder, not from the planning system.

Capacity Planning and Comparisons

>I gotta be honest, in terms of LC organised and led I doubt the number of candidates it could effectively support will be much higher than ten, maybe even something like 5.

Not quite comparable 🙂 but I think that is roughly the number that groups such as the Muslim Public Affairs Committee targeted last time – using a community organising approach without the computerised Obama-machine.

How much success did they have?

Matt

Re: Cabalamat & Mike Killingworth

1. Vague and can’t be seen in isolation from wider geo-political foreign and economic policy.
2. It’s an interesting aspiration, but the theory is far from sufficiently developed to be advocatable as a national policy at this time. Maybe a pilot scheme on a single-constituency island, such as the Isle of Wight…
3 Land is a factor of production, but so too is the environment (some, though not me, would argue they are the same).
“To do this, it is necessary to build lots of houses, overruling the objections of nimbys when they occur” sounds to me decidely authoritarian in the way it bypasses due process and discourages civic participation in decision-making, so it should be opposed.

I think we need to take a long term view on this. If LC do succeed in getting people elected in a few constituencies in the next general election, the political elite will become a lot more receptive to people like us in future, thus they will be eager to court us and support the sorts of policies that we favour.

No disagreement here, I was talking from a practical point of view and looking at the next GE specifically.

Obviously if this looks like it can make it of the lab (ie discussion on LC) part of that will be working out an overall strategy, including short, medium and long term objectives, divided by phases of action…

UK Polling Report will probably be useful: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/


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