If, like me, you’ve been addictively refreshing the likes of PoliticalWire for the latest US election news, then you’ll be looking forward to Tuesday night with both excitement and nervousness.
One of the things I always enjoy most about following US elections is hearing about the latest campaigning and organisational approaches and techniques. Let’s face it, the US is the world-leader in election innovation (you’d expect that from the $billions spent). From my US election reading over the last few months, I’ve tweeted links to some great articles about the organisational approaches the Obama campaign has been putting in place. In the next few days, I’m going to blog about some of the lessons I’ve taken from what I’ve read and heard from US friends, along with some rough initial thoughts about how Labour might be able use these lessons to hone our organisation in the run-up to the next general election.
Despite the much more meagre financial resources we have available to campaign with in the UK, the insights I’ve chosen can be adapted for UK use without significant spending. So much of this is not about cutting edge technology breakthroughs, but it is absolutely about having the management of a campaign focusing relentlessly on consistently executing what works, not just in a few pilot areas, but everwhere you need to win.
1. All politics is local: so your GOTV should be as local as possible
The Obama campaign’s ‘ground-game’ has received all sorts of plaudits from in-awe political journalists (e.g. here). What really struck me from this purposefully boastful Obama memo/press release though is the scale, and hence the level of localisation of the operation: they’re running GOTV (get out the vote) in 9 states from 5,117 ‘staging locations’, i.e. local campaign centres / committee rooms.
Well that seems like quite a big number, but of course you might argue that the US is a pretty big place. So to put that into context… the combined population of those 9 swing states is 66.2 million, which means if they were evenly distributed, these GOTV centres each would cover just under 13,000 residents (NOT voters). So on average that’s the equivalent of about a committee room per 2 UK electoral wards.
But of course, within each swing state, there will be areas that are heavily hostile, so the Obama campaign won’t be concentrating much GOTV resource there, but putting much more resource into swing or favourable areas. I reckon this means they’ll often have a local GOTV centre for about each 5,000 voters in swing or favourable areas. That’s the equivalent of 1 local campaign centre per UK electoral ward.
I imagine there are only a handful of Labour constituency campaigns that ever manage anything near this level of localised GOTV at a general elections. Remember, the Obama campaign are not just doing this in a few of their best organised areas – they are delivering this consistently across ALL the swing states.
The benefits of such localisation are legion. As the Obama campaign says:
Unlike campaigns of the past, our volunteers are not driving to some large office miles from their homes and handed a phone and a call sheet. Instead, Canvass Captains, Phone Bank Captains and scores of local volunteers will be knocking on the doors of the very voters they registered, have been talking to for months and know personally. And they will be directing them to polling locations in their communities – the schools their kids go to, the places of worship they attend each week and community centers they know well.
Now that sounds good, but crucially it is supported by the evidence base. Middleton’s 2006 study (summary here) demonstrated a level of GOTV effectiveness from neighbour-to-neighbour contact that hasn’t been matched from other techniques. You can also speculate on additional positive effects of having a more localised GOTV operation: a more visible and accessible presence in local communities at election times, when political engagement is highest, so there may be positive effects on member and volunteer recruitment; there’d almost invariably be less time spent travelling backwards and forwards on election day from the central campaign centre in the middle of a constituency, leaving more time for the actual knocking of doors.
So, perhaps when planning our election GOTV here next time, we need to shift the focus away from having a central committee room in the middle of the constituency, from which we deploy volunteers across the constituency irrespective of which ward they live in. As long as training is done and ward organisers are clear on what is required, running devolved, localised GOTV is more possible than ever. There are risks – devolving the organisation doesn’t mean devolving the message (we can’t have each ward just write their own GOTV scripts for example, all of Obama’s GOTV centres are massively standardised in that way) and we certainly don’t need a full-time volunteer in each ward with their time taken up making the tea or sandwiches. But done right, delivering our GOTV on a consistently local basis, as the Obama campaign is doing, will mean we are best placed to take advantage of our activists’ relationships with their own communities and to turn out the vote we need to win in 2015.
Having thought about the organisation of GOTV, in my next post I’ll talk about some of the emerging lessons from the US about the psychology of GOTV messaging.
Remember the Labour Party have an extensive range of campaign training modules available online (through membersnet here) and a variety of other forms of support and advice available through the Campaigns and Technology support team (contact details through membersnet here).