23 Jan 2013

What Labor Can Learn From Obama In 2013

By Alex White

Labor might be starting the election year on the back foot but defeat is not a foregone conclusion. Alex White worked on Obama's 2012 campaign and reckons the ALP can win in 2013 if it campaigns hard on the ground

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.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tim Macknay
Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - 15:26

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

Obama’s was "Forward".</em></blockquote>

How about "Moving Forward"? ;)

Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 07:36

Hi Tim, I linked to an article I wrote about this. Here it is again:


The key difference is context.

“Moving Forward” as used by Julia Gillard and the Labor campaign was mostly devoid of context. Certainly, Gillard attempted to give context after the term was subjected to ridicule:

“I’ve been using those words because they mean something to me and I think they mean something to the nation,” she said.

“I’ve used the term ‘moving forward’ because I believe it captures a spirit about Australia. We are a confident, optimistic, forward-looking people.

“I want to be talking to the Australian people in this campaign about how our nation can seize the opportunities of the future.”

Unfortunately, as noted at the time, the slogan was mostly empty and disconnected. It was a lost opportunity, because connected to various policy categories, it did have a positive, optimistic tenor. Moving forward on education, moving forward on health, etc.

The slogan was also connected to the deposing of Rudd, and the media obviously played up the idea that Gillard wanted to move on (or wanted the Australian people to move on) from the Rudd-era.

Obama on the other hand has connected the slogan from the outset to the defence of his key policy achievement.

This context links the optimistic, forward-looking slogan to a concrete issue — an issue where a lot is at stake. Aligned groups have also bolstered the campaign. The Forward slogan has been used with Obamacare, but it is also the “official catchword” of his campaign.

Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 15:07

A major difference is Obama is popular and has a high trust rating. Julia is un-popular and no one trusts her. Labor also cannot be trusted, all the recent shenanigans in Wollongong, Eddie O'Bede & co, Craig Thompson and Julia's past dodgy dealings, appointing Peter Slipper to Speaker and her recent shafting of Trish Crossin all lower her trust and likeability. Just like World Cycling, the Labor party needs to come clean, get back to existing for the benefit of the members and workers, not the Labor elite. Intergrity and trust are what is required, not a catchy slogan and Nova Peris. Sadly this is a long road for Labor unless a major reshuffle (crisis) occurs. I'm disappointed Kristina Keneally didn't stick around - I think she has the character & personality to unify Labor and bring in non-Labor people . . . perhaps there is a Federal role for her in the future?

p mahone
Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 15:51


So let's sum up - no mention of policy, tight messaging, attack the person rather than the issue and, most importantly, let's copy the Americans because we all know how progressive their set-up is and how closely their political culture and tradition mirror ours.

The article burbles on about strategy but, big picture, it is more about tactics and, from that perspective, might have some useful elements.

But, infatuation with this sort of thing and, worse, conflating it with core politics is not only anti-progressive but would only heighten already worrying levels of public cynicism.

Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 16:03

The fact that this is the first article I read in this edition of New Matilda shows that I am doubtful, frustrated, confused and disappointed in Labor right now.
I am terrified of Abbott achieving his hate-filled and negative return to the past tenure but I am looking forward to a real Leader.
Leadership is not about 'mateship' or being like me, it is about being a visionary who can explain the clear intent of the politician for Australia's future.
Rudd did this very very well. He spoke clearly. Even though people made fun of his verbosity, he always stayed on measure and made it clear and made it personal to ALL Australians.
I am not necessarily calling for his return.
I am calling for Leadership.
That is what Obama had as well. He gave Americans a smiling, pleasant, but serious sense of being a Leader. A real Leader.

I want a story of where we are going as a Nation and how we are going to get there without pandering to the Religious, the Wealthy, those who are already doing ok, or those with 'downward envy'.
The catch phrase of Howard's' ( that nasty little man) worked...that he was going to govern for 'all Australians'. He lied but it worked. He divided the nation and made everyone envious so that he could conquer at each subsequent election. He raised the flag of fear and made himself the protector. He lied but it worked. Why? Because he made each disparate group believe he was talking to them and enfolding them into his elitist bosom while at the same time bad mouthing intellectuals, scientists, the social welfare advocates and those with even an ounce of humanity about them.

It is sad to know that because of live in a National Party stronghold electorate that under Alex's plan I won't be considered at all. Such is life.

Posted Thursday, January 24, 2013 - 18:55

Hi Allie -- if Labor adopted an Obama-style electoral strategy, safe seats become important campaign centres, so you would be definitely considered.

p mahone -- I wouldn't recommend Labor adopt many or any of Obama's policies, especially on workers rights, foreign policy or climate change. The article was clearly about electoral campaigns, not governing or policy. Only so much you can put into a 1000 word article.

Grant -- Obama is popular now but during the election, his popularity took a dive compared to his first two years. On the "trust" issue, I've written about that here: http://alexwhite.org/2012/04/trust-and-credibility-is-very-important-ind...

Posted Saturday, January 26, 2013 - 08:55

The rap singer Lupe Fiasco already learnt a thing or two from Obama.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Saturday, January 26, 2013 - 17:02


The repellent Abbott has many odious attributes, but when it comes to being "hate-filled", pretty much anyone in the Labor Party leaves him for dead.

Apart from Labor, only White Supremacists make such a virtue of being "great haters"!

And as for the "little rat" Howard, he got re-elected not because people believed his "lies", but because his policies made them better off materially. Under his governments working-class people saw double-digit increases in their real wages, while under every single Labor Party government since the world was made, working-class wages have actually fallen in real terms, a great tradition Julia is amazingly managing to maintain at a time of the greatest mining boom in a millennium.

Not that Alex's teams of hard-sell political telemarketers will be telling any swinging voters that!