Aspiring politicians, learn from Obama’s campaign

In 2012, Obama turned a national campaign into a local campaign. This is how he did it.


Creating empowered volunteers with a sense of ‘Us’

Obama’s campaign radically changed the nature of election volunteering. Traditionally, volunteers have only been entrusted with relatively menial tasks, because it is hard to trust volunteers with complexity when they only do it part time.


Building on the work of behavioral scientists like Daniel Khaneman, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, integrated the notion of ‘escalation of commitment’ into the volunteering philosophy. Volunteers would be given small tasks at first, both so as not to overwhelm them and to test their capability. These small tasks help build engagement with the campaign, particularly as the sense of community is so strong. Quickly, volunteers were given increasingly complex tasks, that aligned with their capabilities. Data-minded people were given reports to analyse while people who loved talking manned phone banks.


The campaign built on the work of Marshall Ganz (one of my professors at the Kennedy School) who developed Obama’s community organizing philosophy for the 2008 election. He advocates that to feel engaged in the pursuit of a goal, we need to feel engaged in narrative focused on shared feelings or experiences. The way individuals engage in each other’s narratives is to go on training camps. Zack Exley notes that no campaign had ever sent volunteers on two days camps. The philosophy is perpetuated back in campaign centers, where volunteers have debrief sessions to discuss the initiatives that worked or failed.


Leveraging technology to nanotarget

What differentiated Obama’s campaign in 2008 and 2012 was the ability to target voters specifically based on their individual preferences. In his excellent article, Sasha Issenberg points out that the campaign had up to 1000 data points for some voters.


Volunteers were able to log into a site known as ‘neighbor to neighbor’ (Seth Colter Walls’ provides an overview), which enables volunteers to see which voters living on the streets beside them would be most . Think a voter by voter ‘cost-benefit analysis’ assessing the likelihood of conversion. Under the direction of mobile guru Chris Hughes, the Obama campaign then took this a step further, developing a mobile app for volunteers, enabling them to load a Google map displaying the homes of voters deemed potentially persuadable. Yes: they know where you live.


Technology also enables voters . I did some phone calling for Obama during the 2012 election. Sitting in Palo Alto, California, all I had to do was click a button on a website to be immediately connected with an undecided voter in Colorado or Ohio. The campaign was leveraging web-to-mobile technology developed by Twilio, which hides people’s real numbers to protect privacy and does away with the need to type numbers into your phone.


By the next campaign, I suspect volunteers will receive questioning briefs for each voter they visit or call, which will focus on topics that matter to that voter. A young parent with a disabled child will receive a call about improvements to local special needs schools. In a way, it feels like voter manipulation, but arguably, it makes government better, incentivizing and enabling campaigns to adjust to specific, localized voter needs.


Keeping momentum

Elections happen every four years. Preparing for elections happens every day. Obama is the first President to have kept his campaign offices open after the election. As Piskorski, Smith and Winig note, Obama’s campaign organization Obama for America sent out an email to supporters before he was even sworn into office in January 2009 to announce the launch of a post-election organization called Organizing for America. The aim was not only to support Obama’s agenda but to prepare for his reelection.


I’ve updated this blog to mention that Barack Obama sent me an email on the 18th November to say ‘chat tonight?’  Three days before that, I received another email, opening with ‘Andre, I want to cut through the noise and talk with you directly about where we’re headed in the fight for change.’ So I dialed in: the content was not surprising, but it felt personal. Being on the phone with the President (even if 100,000 other people are too) is a radically different experience to seeing a speech broadcast from the Brady press room in the White House. 


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