Practical lessons for Labour from Obama’s re-election – guest blog
Posted on 15 November 2012 | 6:11am
This blog comes courtesy of a friend of mine, Greg Nugent, who until recently was part of the London 2012 team under Seb Coe which helped deliver the best Olympic and Paralympic Games ever.
It must be hard to know what to do next after an extraordinary experience like that, but Greg decided to get involved in another great campaign, Obama 2012, and spent a bit of time as a volunteer.
I regularly get asked by people – including in a school two days ago, on a train yesterday, and at an event in a private bank last night no less – what they can do to help the Labour Party? And though the Party is more accessible than it used to be in many ways, we still have a long way to go before matching the kind of mood and participation described below.
The usual thing is to try to persuade them to join, which is easier than it used to be. But we do not have the same capacity just to let people drop in and out of campaign activity according to THEIR time and needs rather than the campaign’s. Nor have we yet got anywhere near the proper use of social media for campaign purposes. I have said many times before that the Obama team’s genius with social media was not fundraising but using it to find supporters and turn them into activists who then got involved in a meaningful way.
Anyway, here are a few observations from Greg.
2012 was never going to beat 2008, was it? If 2008 was about campaign innovation, history in the making and the formation of a new coalition of support, then this election would be about momentum and finishing the job; policy and practicalities, certainly not poetry. I was curious, having been inspired by the great campaign in 2008, and decided to just turn up and do what I could to help; no role, no training, just a volunteer in the Obama campaign. Curious as to what could be learnt on the ground.
It didn’t take long to understand the shift in mood. Listening to US voters on the phones you begun to quickly understood why: the pace of change was slow and it was obvious that too high a dream, with too many elevated promises, would turn people away from voting Obama in 2012.
They adjusted their position.
For me this was the first real lesson from the campaign. Stick to your core proposition but make it resonate in different, and in this case, more difficult conditions. The Obama campaign team clearly understood this mood and constructed the campaign around it. They didn’t try to change or ‘re-brand’ the President, instead they evolved. From ‘Hope’ to ‘Forward’, and ‘Change’ to ‘Jobs’, they held a core position but adjusted the script to make it make sense four years on. In a world where we all too often change and ‘rebrand’, this was impressive and something all brands can learn from, especially in these unpredictable times.
They built a strategy to win.
Everybody believed that they would win the election on the ground, in the wonderfully titled “ground game”. This must have taken years of planning and many millions would have been sunk into building the operations to deliver it. The lesson I learnt was they invested in the right technical systems that would go on to create billions of dollars of earned media. They calculated that their people were their media. Everyday thousands of volunteers walked into phone banks, hopped on to a bus to a swing state or used the (deeply impressive) Dashboard app to knock on doors or make calls from home.
The strategy was obvious: every single vote would count, reminding me of the brilliant Dave Brailsford and his pursuit of the ‘aggregation of marginal returns’ as head of British Cycling. Add all the little gains together, however small and unimpressive they may appear, and you can swing a state; swing a state and you can win an election.
To deliver this they excelled at making the volunteer experience an easy one. Connect through Dashboard, find a place to go, turn up, get trained up and off you go. Within ten minutes you are volunteering for the President. Within two days you were being asking to start training the first timers. Simple and effective, millions caught the bug and turned out, returning everyday just to put in an extra hour or two.
They used technology to differentiate.
The engine of the campaign was an attitude to data and turning vast quantities of it into an integrated system that pushed those ‘up for grabs’ into either ‘leaning’ or ‘strong Democrats’. The lesson from 2008, by all accounts, was plenty of data but too many incompatible databases. This time they would create a single customer view that meant that the data, and the information that comes with it, would aggregate. More aggregation would give them more intelligence, more intelligence gave them a narrower targets.
They even hired a ‘chief scientist’ to pull off the wonky data bits, I think we should all get one. The results speak for themselves. One minute I would be talking to an undecided voter in Ohio and the next minute, when they were confident enough, it would be Nevada. The script and voter information would change but the argument stayed the same: Forwards, not backwards, using state by state local arguments.
It was an incredible personal experience and it capped off 2012 as a truly historic year that I will never forget. If London 2012 had been about years of planning, leadership and responsibility for delivery, this was about being told what to do, learning new systems quickly and realising that in America you don’t say ‘queue’, you say ‘line’!
Rightfully so much is now being written about the campaign and its success. Maybe it was demographics, or Sandy, or values or the job rate. It was all of the above?
As a volunteer I was most impressed by the audacity of the integration. Building a clear and coherent objective and a set of strategies to deliver it; demonstrating a profound understanding of the contours of public opinion, values, attitudes and demographics; scripting a story that would work nationally, locally and socially.
That potent fusion of strategy, research, creativity and technology helped re-elect the 44th President. Maybe, when you execute with such clarity and purpose, the results are more powerful and maybe that’s a lesson for all who campaign. I think that’s right, it was a brilliantly thought through and executed campaign. And it’s for that reason that I believe there is more to learn from 2012 than great campaign of 2008.
– Greg Nugent. @nugentgreg
Greg is the former Director of Brand, Marketing & Culture for London 2012 and volunteered for the Obama Grassroots Campaign.