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.



Everyday heros

Many of us are waiting for Superman to save us but he never will unless we learn to save ourselves.

Every time you read an article by someone calling for a politician to be “bold” or “courageous” you are reading the opinion of someone who wants Superman to save them. Every time you hear someone saying they want a leader with some “backbone” or “balls” you are listening to someone who is waiting for Superman to save them.

We can see this playing out on both sides of the Atlantic over the issue of gay marriage. In the United States, Barack Obama has said that he personally supports gay marriage (although he will still leave actual legal decisions up to individual states), whereas in the United Kingdom, David Cameron has signalled that he will not be actively implementing legislation to allow gay marriage.

Each politician has been both criticised and praised by opponents or supporters for either being brave and courageous or pathetic and craven. Both have been celebrated for having stood up for what they believe in and criticised for bowing to pressure from organized groups in society.

But these views fundamentally misunderstand how societies change and what the role of politicians is in this change. It’s not Presidents or Prime Ministers that make countries more tolerant, inclusive places, its average people going about their daily lives that does that. Politicians respond to these changes in society, building alliances and passing laws that reflect the priorities of these alliances, not conjuring up new attitudes out of nowhere.

Let’s look more closely at the issue of gay marriage.

It is certainly striking how much more tolerant the American people have become since around 2004. This graph shows the number of people who favour allowing gay marriage in America. You can see that it is going up.

Why might this be? Let me put forward the theory that it is because more people know people that are openly gay.

Just as people that have regular contact with people of other races are less racist, similarly, people that have regular contact with people who are openly gay are less homophobic.

Here is a graph (taken from polling data here) that shows that the percentage of Americans that say they know someone who is openly gay has dramatically increased over the last 10 years.

A far larger number of Americans say they know someone who is openly gay now than did just a decade ago. At the same time, a far larger number of Americans say that they think gay people should be allowed to marry. My arguement is that these two things are linked.

Different people advocate different tactics for making countries more tolerant. Some try to ridicule people who oppose greater tolerance. Some try to make reasoned arguments for why tolerance is better and hope to convince their opponents. Others try and use money and organization to force and cajole politicians into passing laws that support tolerance.

There is something to be said for all of these tactics, but ultimately, none of them are nearly as effective as the cumulative effect of large numbers of people interacting with friends, relatives and colleagues and slowly coming to the realization that there really isn’t anything to be feared from gay marriage. It is people coming out in their neighbourhoods, to their families and in their workplaces that is making America a more tolerant place. Obama is just reflecting that.

We may hope that a powerful politician will sweep into power and decree that the country will be a more tolerant place with a swipe of their pen, but that’s not how the world works.

Firstly, there is always the danger that a leader supporting a particular cause will not convince opponents that it is right but will, instead, make them even more resolute in their opposition. They are opponents after all and not really inclined to listen to the other side’s arguments. Secondly, there is the fact that, by and large, we only want our politicians to do things that are popular. Indeed, the whole point of democracy is that we do not have politicians that decide what is right or wrong entirely independently of what the public think. In fact, maybe it’s a good thing that politicians try and work out what the public think and try and stick close to it?

As Bruce Springsteen says, you will “waste your summer praying in vain/ for a saviour to rise from these streets.”