What can Labour learn from the Obama campaign

Obama has achieved something that has proved impossible for politicians across the world since the credit crunch: he has been re-elected. Can the Labour party learn anything from his success? In particular, what can Labour learn from the Obama campaign’s so-called “ground game”?

Not only can Labour learn from the Democrats 2012 campaign, they can go further. Rather than solely focusing their efforts around “getting out the vote”, the Labour party can build solid and long lasting relationship with citizens.



But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, lets look at the Obama campaign. It was a very different beast to 2008. Technology played a far more prominent role than ever before and the operation was run along hyper-professional lines.

This piece in The Atlantic explains some of the ways in which technology ran through the campaign. Gone are the days when a website and a facebook account are seen as modern. The Obama campaign created new tech products such as “Dashboard”, “the Call Tool”, “the Facebook Blaster”, “the PeopleMatcher”, and most importantly “Narwhal”.

And what did they do with these products? They used them to raise money, attract volunteers and target voters.

“The team’s only real goal was to elect the President”

This leads on to the second point. The campaign was a professionally run, modern, effective “get out the vote” operation. There is some contrast here with the idealism and community organizing style of the 2008 campaign. As Anthony Painter says in his New Statesmen piece “the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012”

Instead, the campaign used a Starbucks-like approach that included “behavioral psychology, data-mining, and randomized experiments” as ways of targeting voters with an incredibly fine grained approach. Even Karl Rove is impressed.

We should not underestimate how hard it is to run a professional operation of this type. We can see this in the Romney campaign which has been described by insiders as  “nothing short of a fiasco“. For example, their much hyped Orca system did not work properly and volunteers did not know how to use it.



The principle lesson that the Labour party can learn from this is the importance of building a polished, professional campaigning staff and infrastructure. Part of this involves brining in people from outside of politics, such as people who have been working in technology developing computer programmes. Another part involves being open to experimental and data driven approaches to campaigning.

So far so obvious.

A further lesson is that the ground game is more effective if given more time to take root. As Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, said;

“Starting a conversation with a persuadable voter months before Election Day allows us to be more effective in responding to that voter’s priorities than if they first hear from us a few weeks out. Building and maintaining our grass-roots foundation takes time and resources, but we believe those early investments will make a difference.”

In the UK we have a tradition of short election campaigns. This can mean that in many areas the only time that voters hear from political parties (apart from on the TV) is in the 6 weeks before the election. To put it mildly, it can be quite hard to really strike up any kind of rapport with voters in 6 weeks. Especially when very few people are members of political parties.

The Labour party should put a high priority in going further than the Obama campaign and should be continually talking to voters, listening, responding and, most importantly, organizing.



The Obama campaign shows that it is possible for political parties to use sophisticated techniques and longer term campaigning to identify and mobilize potential voters. This is of great relevance to the Labour Party as it seeks to secure a majority at the next election.

Peter Kellner at the polling company YouGov has written a very thorough analysis looking at which voters the Labour party needs to attract. He essentially argues that there are three groups of voters who used to vote Labour but no longer do that Labour needs to convince; people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010, people who stopped voting and people who vote for the Conservatives in 2010.

Kellner’s main argument is that the people who previously voted Labour but started to vote for the Lib Dems will now vote for Labour again at the next election. He argues that this means that Labour should concentrate on the other two groups who are, he tells us, more likely to describe themselves as “centre-right” in their political views and “less likely than [Labour] loyalists to live in social housing, work in the public sector or belong to a trade union”.

If Labour was to adopt wholesale the approach of the Obama campaign they would be identifying with precise detail who these people are, what their priorities are and would then be sending very personalised messages to them.

A more radical approach would be to actual enter into conversations with these people. For example, the Labour party does not have to accept that these people are not in Trade Unions. The party could actually ask people about their experience of work and see if they are interested in joining together with their co-workers so that they can have more influence at work.



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