Sunday, November 16, 2008

Inside the Obama campaign

"Nowhere is it ordained that history moves in a straight line" wrote Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope, and nowhere was it ordained that he would win, in spite of the palpable feeling amongst millions that this was his moment. A sense of destiny is not enough to win an election. Obama and his team knew this and two years ago began building what has probably been the most formidable ground operation in the history of politics. How did they do it and what was it like? I spent six weeks in the battleground state of New Mexico finding out:


"We have a new full time volunteer! Meet Michael, from England" shouted Nick Rosa to a bustling Obama campaign office, which turned in unison with cheers, calls of welcome and the ring of the recruitment bell.

I arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, six weeks before the election, keen to help and to get an insider's perspective on Obama's much praised 'grassroots' campaign. A key swing state, New Mexico voted for Bush in 2004 by only 6000 votes - just 2 votes per electoral precinct. The campaign was taking no chances and had 39 field offices (compared to McCain's 10), 7 of those in the Santa Fe area ('Region 4'). It was into one of these that I'd walked on September 25th.

The atmosphere was something between a community cafe, a high octane sales room and a high school. The shop unit, looking out across a crowded parking lot, had been transformed with a collage of stickers and posters - some official, many homemade - and lists canvasers hung ready for new additions. A constant stream of volunteers was trained on the days' goals and left with their 'canvas packets' - the map and list of voter's doors they were to knock on. Others were returning their canvas packets filled out with the collected info, and a bank of elderly ladies at donated computers entered the data into the campaign database. There was a pleasant, energetic hum of conversation and laughter and in one corner three girls in their early teens were calling through a phone list to recruit more volunteers, pinging lobby style attention bells each time they won a new recruit, to a burst of cheers from the rest of the room.

This was the frontline of a ground campaign that has been widely hailed as groundbreaking. How so?

Firstly, the sheer scale of the operation. New Mexico has been awash with Obama volunteers. "They're out everywhere. They're like flies", said a Republican volunteer rather forlornly at the only - and sparsely populated - McCain office in Santa Fe. Recruitment built up week on week, with volunteers recruiting volunteers, until the office I started at had over 500 canvasers leaving every day - so many that they relocated the canvas operation to a nearby warehouse. In the two weeks prior to the election the region as a whole achieved over one hundred thousand door knocks, and made over fifty thousand phone calls - and there are less than 200,000 registered Democratic voters here.

The campaigns huge financial resources, with over $600 million raised, was clearly important but while the McCain-Palin campaign emails tried to suggest Obama way buying his support that was far from the truth - our region had at least four unpaid full-time volunteers for every paid Field Organiser, with hundreds of part-time volunteers on top of that.
Americans in their tens of thousands were 'fired up' for their candidate is a way not seen for decades and the stories of volunteers' commitment could be moving: the man who arrived late to canvas, hugely apologetic, and smelling of smoke - his house had burned down in the early hours of the morning; the lady volunteer who, after being stabbed in the throat came in to the office a few days later, unable to speak but determined to help. They were of all ages, classes, backgrounds, from wealthy attourneys to school teachers, but college students and recent graduates have been the backbone - the "Kids Crusade" was how one aging campaign veteran descibed it.

Obama's message of hope and change, skilfully packaged and amplified by the campaign, has obviously been central, particulary in attracting the young. It provided an emotive core often lacking in Democratic campaigns. Yet it would have sounded flat and hollow were it not for the real secret of this campaign - community empowerment. "You feel Obama's community
organiser roots through this entire campaign" explained Geno Zamora, a campaign senior advisor in the state. "They've taken tried and tested community organising techniques and modernised them. But it's still reaching out to people, getting people to tell their stories, to share and be involved". The basis of this style of engagement has been summarised as the public narrative-'The Story of ME - who I am; the story of WE - who we are; and the Story of NOW - what are we going to do together'. "If you look at Obama's famous 2004 convention speech, it follows exactly that structure" explained Siri Trang Khalsa, a professional policy expert volunteering in the Santa Fe HQ. "He has been able to personally connect with people in a way that no other politician has in a really long time".

This connection has been transformed into action - into tens of thousands of volunteers, millions of doors knocked, and a resounding victory - by a campaign that sought to push power out to its people on the ground. "Now I just totally understand how a small group of people can do a huge thing. When you're actually putting responsibility in the hands of others it just explodes with output." explained Bill Loundy, fresh from his final semester at Stanford, eyes glistening with excitement. "When you empower its like you've got a big jar of marbles and all you do is spill it. Just drop it. Spread everything out, throw the seeds all over the place and everything starts growing." The constant aim was bring people further in: Given money? Give a few hours to canvas; Given a few hours canvasing? Can you recruit four others and lead a canvas team? The campaign had genuine grassroots beginnings, it connected with them and it placed the highest value on getting communities to work for themselves to bring Barack to power. "The highest position in the campaign is that of the Field Organiser" declares the weighty campaign manual.

Yet a free-for-all it most certainly was not - the community action has been extremely carefully directed. "This is a very disciplined campaign at every level" explained Mr Zamora. "It's a level of organisation that's never been seen, not only of community organisation but folding technology into it." Firstly the ground campaign was integrated into the broader messaging, so a voter hearing a healthcare themed ad on their local radio station was handed a brochure on Obama's healthcare plan the same week. Secondly, highly sophisticated data mining and demographic analysis was used to target voters with great accuracy. Starting months ago with the publicly available list of registered voters, the campaign used its volunteers, through canvasing and phone calls, to expand and hone voter details, allowing them to be cut into highly targetted 'universes' with a specific strategy for each.

So behind the soaring rhetoric and inspiring slogans the campaign was being run clinically - by cold, hard numbers. Each state was analysed based on past elections and the precise number of votes needed for victory was calculated. Then the strategy to get these votes was broken down into weekly and daily targets, split between each field office. These targets were key to keeping the focus and momentum. Full timers - both paid and unpaid - have been working 15 hour days for weeks, sometimes months. In the evenings from around 8pm the buzz of the office would quieten down leaving the team of around 5-10 full time staff sitting round at their laptops. At 9.30pm every night we gathered round a cell phone, set to speaker, for the regional conference call with Regional Director Alfred Johnson, as each team reported the days numbers for volunteers recruited, doors knocked, phonecalls made, and then received his feedback on 'percent to goal'. Then at 10pm we all listened in as Alfred reported our region's performance on the state wide conference call. Competition between offices and regions was fierce, the determination to out perform growing as the camaraderie and character of teams solidified. Ultimately the numbers were reported to 'Chicago' and those coordinating the national campaign.

Finally, technology has clearly played a huge role on many levels, but particularly in the allocation of resources. The electoral collage system means the presidency is settled by a relatively small number of battleground states, but the internet and cell phones have allowed resource rich dark blue states to help in the fight as never before. I witnessed the campaigns fleetness of foot one night at the state headquarters in Albuquerque when, just before the nightly call, California reported a lot of spare phone capacity for the following day and 15 minutes later Brent Messenger, Field Director for New Mexico, instructed all field offices to focus volunteers on canvasing and leave the phone calls to the Californians - California made over a quarter of a million calls into New Mexico alone. It has also facilitated volunteers to come from all over the States - we had over 130 visit our region, joining us for a day or a week, from Texas, California, Nevada. Most paid their own way. Eddie Cruz drove for 12 hours on a Friday, up from Texas, canvased solidly for two days and then drove back in time for work on Tuesday. There were thousands like him across the country.

There's a telling moment in Obama's book 'Dreams From My Father': "I don't like politics much," exclaimed his sister Alma. "Why's that?" asked Barack. "I don't know" she replied. "People always end up disappointed." The question now, with millions feeling empowered by their part in this remarkable story, is
will President Obama prove his sister wrong?


  1. Hey Mr B,
    Thanks for sharing - Facinating to learn how it was done! Good work. I read it out for Mark and it change the way he see politics :o)
    Huuuugs and thoughts

  2. yo saucers, so did you take my advice and go slowly through mexico?

    --justin bailey

  3. your question still remains unanswered :-) Glad you enjoyed it!! great blog. when you back??


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