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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.

  • Christinebayliss

    Spot on analysis. After my son volunteered in 2008 I decided then that I’d go. A week before election day having signed up onDashboard I hopped onto a plane to Ohio. I agree that there was certainly a mood shift and the messages were definately tailored effectively. But what impressed me the most was the quailty of the data you had to hand, sex, age etc etc. in one street we warched Romney people going door hto door whereas in a street if 100 homes we had just three to call on. The preciseness meant we could cover so much more than our opponents.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Elite won.
    The 2012 US presidental election cost about $2.6bn. Money talks in US politics.
    2008 finance sector contributed $42m to the Obama campaign. Lawyers and lobbyists $46m.
    Communications/electronics $27m.
    The biggest Obama donors in 2008 were Goldman Sachs, Microsoft, Google, JP Morgan, Citigroup, Time Warner and Morgan Stanley.
    Rothschilds control all these companies.
    2012 Obama got big money from Mircosoft, Google and Time Warner.
    Mitt Romney was supported by Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Barclays. Rothschilds control all these companies.
    So the bankers backed BOTH candidates!
    The elite believes in Gnosticism. It sees Hegelian dialectics as the pinnacle of Gnosticism.
    The elite even creates opposition to itself to give an impression of democracy.
    But people like Michael Moore NEVER speak about the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
    CFR was created as a front for JP Morgan and Round Table freemasons.
    And ONLY relatives of the British royal family can become presidents of the US.
    And ONLY members of top freemasons´ Bilderberg Group can become PMs in Britain.
    The aim of Bilderberg Group is “one world” according to its founder.
    This means world government, global currency and one-world religion.
    Nigel Farage recently told King World News that it is difficult to ignore those telling that there are a group of people who want to create a world government.
    In the US printing money will lead to inflation. Inflation will lead to riots.
    Riots will lead to martial law.
    US, Mexico and Canada will form a North American Union with amero as the currency.
    Along with United States of Europe and eight other unions North American Union will form a world government under the guise of United Nations.
    Of course, economic collapse is needed for this to happen.
    Decision has already been made to cause a Lehman-like shock to the world economy to achieve this.
    Would Greece´s exit from euro do the trick?
    Angela Merkel now says that there is going to be a federation in Europe.
    Bilderberg Group decided to create it in 1954.
    Bankers helped to collapse the Soviet Union. Now they will help to collapse the US by destroying the dollar.
    The plan is to pile debt on European countries and make them dependent on the European Central Bank.
    Then brave new EUSSR can be created.
    Bankers and freemasons are destroying DEMOCRACY.
    What we can learn from this is that too much PRIVATE POWER is not good.

  • Anonymous

    What’s the point of commenting if it doesn’t sometimes appear?

    Ok, Obama 2-oh-oh-8 song, riding on the back of the new then myspace so yesterday replacement, the facelessbook replacement online,

    And you are suggesting to me a political party in this countrywill get the same vib going? Never in a month of sundays in hell. Labour is only a slight step ahead of the torys in imagination, but still sound as brit starchy as them. Absoloutly no chance like the US then to capture any mood, we are not as dynamic as a society in this country, all us stuck in our mind staids.

    Yes, you’re dreaming, and this idiot of a government is freaking us more to be more so. In 2015 we will be like scared rabbits in the headlights not knowing which way to look, as they have planned and are putting into action, as per Thatch ’83 and ’87.

  • I’m sure the organisation was excellent and Labour will be looking very closely at the way the election campaign was run.

    I think the Obama campaign had an advantage in that the Republicans made themselves into an easy “enemy” for liberal US people. The nutty tea party people and suchlike will have given the Democratic party supporters a lot of energy to go out campaigning.

    In the UK the Conservative party is very much ahead of the Republican party in that it knows that it has to appeal to the middle ground. We have seen how Cameron has presented the party as “changed” on issues such as the environment or on gay rights. This changed presentation makes the party a bit less of an ogre to liberal minded UK people.

    And so I think that exposing the Conservative party is important. It is not green, it is not gay friendly etc.

  • Gilliebc

    Hi Ehtch, I wonder where Michele has got to? It must be about 6 weeks now, since we heard from her. I hope she is alright. Hope you are alright too, as we all struggle through November, the most miserable month of the year, as I’ve said before. Israel kicking off again!

    Blue Labour and red Tories, there is little or no difference between them. Democracy is a sham. Always was, it’s just more obvious now. Read Olli’s post/s for details. The details are true and provable. As Alan Watt of Cutting through the says, we are living a script.

  • Anonymous

    Off topic as usual Alastair, sorry, but England shower footie from last night – oh dear, hard cheese to them, and all that, isn’t it Alastair? Ibravimovitch four goals, with the incredible fourth one – Hart can’t header.

    Brief highlights here from Brazilian portugese telly – gooooooooal, and all that etc..

  • Anonymous

    Yes, actual membership of political parties is in decline so you have to harness people when and where you can. I am not a very committed member of the Labour Party in that I never go to their meetings and am filled with guilt by each of the many emails I get from them. On the other hand, I have been active on a local level quite a bit when push comes to shove – not too proud to hand out leaflets at 7 am on rainy days.

    I did find during the mayorals that the ‘knocking on doors’ routine was very much the buckshot approach and I think we have to get a lot better at using information. I also think that if you are going to run a campaign using volunteers you ought to be professional about the way you use them – put sensible people in charge possessing a few social skills and don’t fritter away goodwill.

    Lastly, in the rush to embrace new media, don’t forget that there are plenty of people who think Facebook is the work of the devil – so find something which everyone can access.

  • Anonymous

    Alright Gilliebc? How’s things? Am doing alright, but yes, this Nov is extra miserable this year, mainly due to the rubbish summer we have had. And hope Michele is doing OK.

    In the three by-elections, Cardiff South and Penarth, and Manchester Central, have both been held by Labour, with voter share of the Coaltion parties well down, with even the tory candidate losing their deposit with less than 5% of the vote in Manchester Central. Quite shocking, but the torys won’t admit that. Corby result just after midday today, but Louise Mensch has already more or less admitted that her seat will go Labour.

    And yes, the near-east is going nuts again – Israel has just called up their army reserves. It is not looking good, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone from around the World working to prevent an escalation. And it is quite peculiar this always seems to happen just after an US Presidential election, especially when a Democrat gets in.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post Olli. It seems the world is moving towards a sort of pre-English Civil War type World, where what the King/Queen says happens, and let the rest of us eat cake.

  • Anonymous

    By the way Alastair, if you want to draw up an University Challenge team from us lot here that visit you, which I would recommend to be called Campbell’s Blog Four, just give me a shout – I know the most peculiar things, but I suppose I would specialise in engineering, science and technology, and help out with history, geography, geology, and of course politics, and ahem! welsh literature, but I don’t think that will come up somehow. And of course You Tube, of course.

    But I will only turn up if Olli from Finland is there in our team, he will be our joker card, no doubt, if he can make it.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll admit it Alastair, I didn’t bother to vote yesterday, because I really didn’t mind who would win, but sorry to admit it, was for the one that won here, from “the otherside”. Anyway, see how he does, it will be quite interesting,

    Wales in rugger tonight, against Samoa. Should be interesting, again, but as I always say, be able to tell within ten minutes of game start whether us welsh will play pants.

  • Anonymous

    EASY EASY EASY Incredible result, almost half the vote, torys 15% down, UKIP third, and a decent 45% turnout for a by.

    Corby, ey, all, Alastair?

    No probs. Lib Dems insisted a recount, to check that they had lost their deposit – didn’t take long. As if anyone was interested.

    What do you say Prezza?

    But may I say, Hart is going to be teased by Villa supporters tomorrow by “Hart has no header, Hart has no header, da-da da da, etc..”

  • Dave Simons

    In defence of November I thought we’d had some golden days recently. In the Peak District there’s often a sea of cloud in the valley bottoms first thing, with sunshine on the tops. It’s a marvel to witness. Nevertheless I suppose we should remember that poem by Thomas Hood, ‘No!’:

    ‘No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
    No comfortable feel in any member –
    No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
    No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds –


  • Anonymous

    re. rugger: And pants it was. Kiwis next week – oh deary deary me. Hospital food it will be, but you never know, stranger things have happened – let the deluded thinking start.

  • Anonymous

    Nice one Dave. It is strange that it was October when the autumn blues used to kick in. But with global warming, it seems to be November these days. The leaves only really started falling to coat their autumn blood on the ground in November with this year. But it looks it will be all year soon, with the ash bubonic plague coming.

  • Anonymous

    Reference facelessbook, I find You Tube more imaginative. I think you will find more influential people there to pass on the message to peers, with a bit of true honest to goodness wit.

  • Anonymous

    Good speech by Mr Salmon here I thought. Wished he stood as independent though – can’t really understand how these PCC elections have to be politically connected. Quite bizarre, something is missing there.

  • Anonymous

    Fouth goal from a different angle, from the otherside of firld Alastair in, ahem! oyditoidy Swedish, from Swedish telly it has just been confirmed to me on You Tube by a swedish friend, and the swedish commentator goes ballistic as well,

    Send to Lineker, to stick in his pipe and smoke it, Alastair.

  • Gilliebc

    Thanks Dave, it’s good to be reminded occasionally that November isn’t all gloom and doom. Even I have noticed some very beautiful cloud formations just recently. It’s strange though how there can be big fluffy white clouds going past in one direction, whilst at the same time there are dark rain clouds seemingly going past, lower down, in the other direction!

  • Anonymous

    Olli is on the left, me on the right, and Gillebc next to you, keeping you warm.