What Labor Can Learn From Obama In 2013


This month's Newspoll boosted Labor's hopes about the next election. The commentators and Twitterati who got excited didn't mention that even with the rise in the polls, electoral demise is still on the cards for Labor, with a loss of around five seats projected. The average of the polls (rather than a single poll, which could be a rogue) would see Labor lose as many as 19 seats.

Labor simply cannot rely on "more of the same" tactics that have lead the party to its election-losing position.

Last year, I spent two-and-a-half months working as an Organizing Fellow for the Obama for America in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. I saw firsthand how an effective campaign won when all the economic trends were against the President, and when conservative corporate American Super PACs spent over US$567 million in mostly negative advertising.

Obviously, not everything Obama did can translate to Australia. The main difference is that America has voluntary voting and state-run electoral systems. Compulsory voting means that the final week and a half of the US campaign — which is devoted to "Get Out The Vote" — would instead be taken up with identification and persuasion in Australia. Despite this significant difference, the majority of election campaign activity around the world involves convincing people to support their candidate and then to go and vote.

Winning elections, whether it is marginal seats or swing states, comes down to a handful of voters in a handful of neighbourhoods. Elections are won on the margins, where changing just one or two per cent of the vote will change the outcome of the election. In Australia, six seats are held by a margin of less than one percent. If Labor can hold its own marginal seats and win just two of either Boothby, Hasluck or Aston, then it will win the election (not counting seats like Melbourne or Denison, which are already in Labor's bag when it comes to numbers in parliament).

Labor can win in 2013. Here's how.

Firstly, Labor needs to significantly invest in field organising.

A strong field organisation is widely regarded in the USA to make a difference of around two per cent. That could sandbag Labor's eight most marginal seats.
Obama had double the number of campaign offices compared to Romney — over 800 in total. His army of field organisers numbered in the thousands. In safe Massachusetts, there were over 20 fulltime organisers and double the number of fulltime volunteers. In New Hampshire, there were over 80 organisers for a voting population of less than a million people. Their primary job was to identify and motivate volunteers, who then spent most of their time contacting their neighbours on behalf of the President.

The Democrats and Obama's field organisation started operations immediately after their drubbing in the 2010 mid-term elections. They invested millions in hiring staff, combining and optimising databases and going door-to-door in key neighbourhoods.

This massive field organisation ensured Obama personally contacted over 126 million people and dominate early voting and Election Day. It was staged from over 800 field offices, powered by over 10,000 neighbourhood teams and 2.2 million volunteers. These field operations, volunteers and offices made a real, tangible difference.

Labor can't repeat the scale, but it can invest early in field organisers, and not just in marginal seats.

The second thing Labor must do is develop a radically simple message. And stick to it.

Obama's was "Forward".  This message was relentlessly repeated by Obama, his Vice President Joe Biden, and the many surrogates who spoke on his behalf, like Bill Clinton and Deval Patrick. Everything Obama talked about was prefaced with the message of "forward".

In Australia, with its smaller media market, there is relentless pressure to change message throughout a campaign. The short-term attention span of the Press Gallery means that journalists very quickly bore of reporting on announcements and policy, and start to meta-analyse the campaign itself.

The discipline of the Obama campaign was also in the face of staunch criticism over his slogan. But he kept at it — and it cut through.

Whatever message they choose, it must be clear, concrete and very, very simple. And every Labor figure must repeat it constantly. Despite the media pack's howls.
Obama's campaign settled on its election winning strategy early on: "Hit Mitt". While Romney was still emerging from the bruising Republican primaries, Obama saturated the airwaves with negative ads that cast the former Governor as an out-of-touch plutocrat who sent American jobs overseas and wanted to ban abortion.

Romney's brand was indelibly tarnished, and in all nine battleground states, his image and personal standing with the electorate never recovered.

Labor has done this part well. It should continue to attack Abbott. Labor's chief asset is that Abbott is mistrusted by the Australian public, and that women especially don't like him. While there is a view that strongly opposes negative advertising, the simple fact is that it works. In the US, the 2012 campaign was notable for its relentless negativity. Unlike in 2008, Obama's positive to negative ad ratio was around 60 per cent negative; and most of his negative ads were simply a lot more effective than Romney's.

Labor must continue to run a mass media campaign against Abbott. Taking a leaf from Obama, Labor should start running television ads against the Liberals very early.

Obama's digital wizardry — the Big Data Revolution — is much written about, as is its possible impact in Australia. Whatever software ends up being used (and Labor really should use the Obama database, called Votebuilder, which I was told is available if they want it), its purpose must be to empower the volunteers and field organisers to make phone calls and knock on doors. This laser targeting gave Obama the edge.

Old fashioned conversations were supercharged by ensuring that volunteers only spoke to people who were genuinely undecided; this was achieved by combining electoral roll data with scores of other data sources, such as consumer databases, previous volunteer and donor records and allied organisations' membership lists, all run through powerful algorithms. In the entire two and a half months I canvassed swing voters in New Hampshire, I spoke to precisely two Republicans. Everyone else was either undecided or ‘leaning' towards Obama. The data was simply that good.

Obama changed the electoral map. The election was ultimately won by a rainbow coalition of women, minorities and the under-29s. Over 1.7 million new people registered to vote with the help of the Obama campaign.

The AEC recently launched a campaign to get 1.5 million unenrolled Australians on to the roll. Labor needs to lead the campaign to find those young people and minorities who aren't enrolled, and get them on. In Boothby for example, the result was decided by 1200 voters. Registration drives in those key marginals help expand the "universe" of voters that Labor can then target for persuasion.

Strategy at its core is about the allocation of limited resources, and at its most basic it involves the concentration of forces into an overpowering mass against your opponent. The modern campaign aerial warfare of television and radio ads, and direct mail is less and less effective to an increasingly cynical and disinterested public.

The last two US elections have shown that campaigns are won on the ground. It was once the case in Australia too and can be again for Labor.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.