Obama 2012 reinvented campaigning; but can the model be duplicated?

ANALYSIS - Barack Obama will never be on a ballot again, but after his big victory last night, many will ask if the Obama campaign model even be replicated...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

“Well, the Obama ground game really was that good.” – Jonah Goldberg, National Review, 11/6/2012

Barack Obama will never be on a ballot again, but after his big victory last night, many will ask if the Obama campaign model can ever be replicated, or if is it the result of a once-in-a-generation candidate and circumstance.  I think the better question is: can future Democratic campaigns afford not to try?

One of the first lessons I learned as a political operative is that no matter the campaign, there are only three ways to win an election: register new supporters, persuade potential supporters, or turn out existing supporters.  The question for every campaign leadership team is to figure out how many resources (if any) and which tactics to use in pursuit of each.

In early 2011, the Obama campaign made a decision to make a big bet in the so-called “ground game” – or what people in the business simply call “field” – as a key component of their overall strategy on all three fronts.  Over the last two years, thousands of paid staffers fanned out to the far corners of battleground states to register, persuade and turn out Obama supporters.  Last night, that strategy was vindicated.

To me, the legacy of the 2012 campaign will be that effort and what it means for the future of the Democratic Party and presidential politics.

While the press usually speaks of the ground game in generalities – “thousands of phone calls,” “hundreds of volunteers,” “countless hours,” and so forth – good campaigns are obsessive about precision in their numbers. Campaigns are also typically very reluctant to release those numbers to the public or press – partially because it is valuable strategic information and partially because snapshots of field numbers don’t necessarily look or sound impressive.

But last Saturday, less than 100 hours before polls closed, the trio of organizers at the top of the Obama field hierarchy – Battleground States Director Mitch Stewart, National Field Director Jeremy Bird and their chief deputy Marlon Marshall – gave us insight into the scope and scale of what Obama 2012 was able to produce using real and incredibly impressive numbers. (Full disclosure: as former OFA Political Director, I’ve worked closely with all three of them in the past, and count them all as friends.) I won’t go into all of them here (you can read for yourself)  but they are truly staggering, well surpassing the 2008 Obama campaign on every level. But perhaps most important is the way that change was achieved.

One sentence towards the end of Stewart, Bird, and Marshall’s memo captures it well:

“Ours is a people-centered, data-driven campaign that has built small, manageable neighborhood teams run by talented volunteers and supported by amazing field organizers who know the exact number of votes they need to win in their precincts.”

This seems so simple, yet it must be said clearly: never, in the history of presidential politics, in either party, has field organizing been done in such a people-centered, data-driven way.  On the strength of his message, personality, and record – and with the help of thousands of dedicated field staffers and volunteers – Barack Obama built a campaign organization unlike any other in American history.

One of the core beliefs of the Obama team – from the president on down – is that personal contact from a neighbor or an acquaintance is the most effective way to recruit a volunteer or deliver a message.  OFA had the time, the resources and, perhaps most importantly, the belief in organizing at the neighborhood level – to embed itself in communities, build infrastructure, and empower volunteers to take real leadership roles in the campaign.  For five years, OFA has recruited, trained, tested and empowered its most committed supporters to serve in roles that would normally be reserved for paid staff.

The neighborhood team leaders of OFA 2012 weren’t just the most zealous or experienced volunteers, they were seasoned professionals in their own right, organizing their own phone banks, canvasses, or voter registration drives and reporting the results directly to Chicago with minimal (or even no) official support.   They were the keepers of the lists of potential volunteers, of the relationships with local elected officials and political allies, of the schedule of events that needed to be staffed and the places from which to stage get-out-the-vote operations.  This model of community organizing is nothing new – it’s been used in many popular movements, including the 2008 campaign – but OFA 2012 adapted it for a national presidential campaign and then executed it to near perfection.

The 2012 campaign also realized that the “ground game” wasn’t an end in itself; the work being done in the field produced valuable data could be used to inform the rest of the campaign operation.

In a way unlike any presidential campaign before it, OFA 2012 created systems to centralize data collection from grassroots field activity and built an unprecedented, in-house quantitative analytics team that could harness it to make its voter contact efforts more efficient. Improved technology combined with the reporting discipline demanded by Stewart, Bird and Marshall gave the campaign leadership the ability to obtain virtually immediate feedback about whether and how targeted voters were receiving messages from the campaign.