On 10 February 2007, Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his ambitious presidential bid on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. Nineteen months on, it is hard to believe that the United States of America in on the cusp of inaugurating its first African-American President. While it is too early to analyse how and why this has come about a mere forty years after the racial tensions exposed by the civil rights movement, the unique character and charisma of Barack Obama has without doubt been a massive contributing factor. He has captured the imagination of not only his own country but of the entire world and has arguably energised a new class and generation of voters never before engaged in political discourse.
This summer I had the honour of working for Senator Obama’s presidential campaign in Albuquerque, New Mexico and it is an experience which I will never forget.
For the uninitiated, New Mexico is located in the cultural heartland of the south-western United States. It is often referred to as a ‘frontier state’, having only gained statehood less than a hundred years ago, in 1912. Wedged geographically and culturally between such extremely diverse states as Texas to the east, Colorado to the north, Arizona to the west and then, of course, Mexico to the south, New Mexico has managed to etch out its own unique identity as a relaxed backwater heavily influenced by Mexican traditions. 43% of New Mexicans identify themselves as Hispanic, the highest proportion of any US state.
In terms of presidential politics, New Mexico is considered a swing state having switched affiliations between Democratic and Republican presidential candidates at nearly every presidential election over the past 20 years. New Mexicans voted for George Bush Snr in 1988, Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 2000, they voted for Al Gore by a margin of just 366 votes and in 2004, they switched their loyalties to George W. Bush, electing him by just under 6,000 votes.
In the winner-takes-all electoral college system which governs US presidential elections, the candidate who gains a plurality of the vote in each state gains all the electoral college votes for that state. New Mexico contributes a total of 5 Electoral College votes out of the 270 that a candidate needs to be elected president. It may not seem like an awful lot in the grander scheme of things, but in an election which was for so long extremely tight, it could have made all the difference. Thankfully, it didn’t have to.
I arrived in Albuquerque at the end of July and although only three months before the election, it was still early days for the campaign. The Democratic primary campaign had concluded just five weeks prior to that with Senator Clinton’s concession to Senator Obama. Neither candidate had chosen their vice-presidential running mate and the full ramifications of the current financial crisis were not as readily apparent then as they are now. On an organisational level, by late July the Obama campaign was only beginning to set up its ground operation in the state of New Mexico; an operation which would eventually grow to number some forty offices throughout the state.
Upon arrival, I was placed with volunteers who housed me for the first six week period I was there. I was then assigned to a campaign field office located in the north-eastern part of Albuquerque. My initial task was to help grow the grassroots volunteer base in that part of town which was predominantly Republican.
What lay before us in New Mexico was an uphill struggle. Not only were we fighting tooth and nail in a key swing state which had leaned Republican in the past; in addition, New Mexico had also voted narrowly for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. With a divided democratic base, it was unclear how Clinton supporters were going to vote.
From my observations, the secret to Obama’s success in New Mexico and indeed nationally was grounded in two integral parts of his campaign. Firstly, his superior campaign organisation which reached into every far flung county of all fifty states and managed to recruit a 5 million-strong volunteer base of motivated individuals. Secondly, his ability to out-fundraise the Republican Party through millions of small individual donations.
How Obama built his volunteer and fundraising base was nothing short of phenomenal. Based on his experience as a community organiser in the economically disadvantaged south side of Chicago, Obama constructed a model of volunteer recruitment and organisation unrivalled in modern US politics.
He departed from the predominantly media-based political campaigns of recent times and returned to a more old-fashioned grassroots campaigning style which placed immense value on individual voter contact, be it by phone, face-to-face contact or through the Internet. This of course was augmented by slick marketing and PR from campaign headquarters.
Obama’s grassroots model was centred around what were called Neighbourhood Teams. To build teams, first team leaders needed to be identified. Once identified, they were invited in to the office to have a “one-on-one” with the staffer that recruited them. A one-on-one involved exchanging “your story” with the staffer i.e. who you are, where you’re from, why you got involved in the campaign , and so forth.
Once the one-on-one was over, the next job was to assemble the team. To do this, a house party was scheduled – usually in the team leader’s house. Over nibbles and refreshments everyone told their story, including the staffer and team leader, and then they planned their first volunteer act together.
The whole affair, from my own perspective, seemed gratuitously self-affirming, but Obama’s number -crunchers certainly did their research because it worked.
People generally came away “empowered” and “fired up” (to use the “Obamanology” in vogue amongst campaign staff) and it acted as a very effective tool to galvanise teams of relative strangers.
Once these teams were built, they, in turn, recruited more volunteers, thus creating a multiplier effect which took on a life of its own. Getting the initial commitment was difficult but once it took off, it was an unstoppable force.
One thing the Obama campaign managed to execute seamlessly was its self-branding as a “grassroots movement for change” while simultaneously employing a rigid top-down hierarchy masterminded and directed centrally from the campaign’s headquarters in Chicago. These headquarters were charged with homogenising a disparate group of 5 million individual volunteers scattered across 50 states. To say that this was a mammoth task is a gross understatement but by all accounts, it seemed to go off without a hitch. Something that definitely worked in their favour was the unifying nature of Senator Obama’s message.
This contradiction in terms of an organisation being both based on a grassroots model and a top-down hierarchical one was all made possible by the Internet. From the outset, Obama was able to use social networking, targeted e-mailing and an interactive website to maintain contact with its grassroots organisation. It made volunteers feel part of something bigger yet at the same time giving the impression of being a cohesive, close-knit community.
In addition to his maximisation of the Internet’s potential, Senator Obama’s grassroots organisation would neither have been possible nor effective were it not for the terabytes of intelligent data that volunteers compiled previous to, and over, the course of the campaign. Every time a voter was called or spoken to face to face looking for support, contributions or to volunteer, any information that was garnered from the contact was recorded on a sheet of paper and fed into a computer system which would be updated at the end of each day. This nationwide database could tell you the age, sex and party affiliation of most voters as well as their address, telephone number and candidate preferences in the various levels of federal government.
With this detailed information, voters were specifically targeted with different tactics. For example, undecided voters were called to be persuaded of the reasons to vote for Obama. Meanwhile, identified Obama supporters were encouraged to apply for postal votes or avail of early voting to ensure that they would turn up to vote. In this way, the Obama campaign could maximise its votes amongst all sections of the electorate in an efficient and targeted manner, much in the same way businesses use intelligent marketing.
Over the course of the five weeks I spent in New Mexico in July and August, the Obama campaign built its volunteer base to reach a critical mass. By the time I left, most of what are now seen to be the turning points of the campaign had not yet occurred; such as the announcement of the vice-presidential candidates, the two parties’ national conventions or the reaction of both candidates to the financial crisis.
By mid-August, both candidates were more or less even in the polls but my feeling was that Obama had the edge, not just because of his fresh image and irresistible message of hope and change but because of his superior organisation and financing. By the end of the campaign, the Obama campaign’s forty offices in New Mexico compared very favourably to John McCain’s ten. Each Obama office was better staffed and used more efficient campaigning methods than its McCain counterpart. John McCain, bound by federal election spending restrictions, could not compete with the money pouring into the Obama campaign coffers from millions of die-hard supporters. Already at that point McCain was relying on negative campaigning and playing on the irrational fears of the electorate to get ahead.
After my five week stint in the summer, I had to return to Ireland for work and college but I travelled back to New Mexico on 24th October for the last ten days of the campaign. When I returned, the office I had been working out of was a totally different place. The volunteer base had mushroomed in the period I was away. Now, day after day, the office was swarming with people making phone calls, doing data entry, picking up canvassing packs to go campaigning door-to-door. There were also an army of people cooking and baking for volunteers!
Everywhere I went, there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. By this stage, Obama was leading in the polls nationally and in New Mexico and he seemed like an unstoppable force. There was much speculation, however, over whether all the people who said they would vote for Obama to pollsters would do so in the privacy of the ballot box.
Much cited in the media was the example of Tom Bradley who was an African-American Democratic candidate for the California gubernatorial race in 1982. Despite being ahead in most polls in the lead-up to the election, he lost by a narrow margin to his white Republican rival, George Deukmejian.
As a result of this fear, despite the polling data which seemed very favourable to Senator Obama, the campaign stepped up their Get Out The Vote (GOTV) effort in the days leading up to Election Day, aiming to call to every identified supporter either face to face or by phone.
Because I speak Spanish, this time around I was dispatched to help get out the vote in poor Hispanic areas where Spanish was the lingua franca. Here, houses were either trailers or ramshackle constructions built on unpaved roads and guarded by vicious guard dogs. The poverty I saw in these areas was unlike anything else I have seen in the Western world.
On Election Day, the Obama campaign organisation went into overdrive to implement what it called the Houdini Project – the culmination of all the intelligent data picked up by the campaign’s army of volunteers over the course of the campaign. The Houdini Project aimed to use this data to track voter turnout on a real time basis over the course of Election Day. To simplify, the campaign was able to tell if one of the people who said they’d vote for Obama had actually turned up at their local polling station to vote. Those that didn’t turn up to vote were called to be reminded to do so either over the phone or directly to their door by volunteers such as myself. If they needed a lift, we provided that too.
The sheer extent of the Obama campaign machine was mind-boggling. How it was able to extend all of its tentacles into every far flung electoral precinct in every battleground state is overwhelming. The campaign estimated that the Houdini Project alone added 2-3% to Obama’s electoral support nationally. In an election where Senator Obama won by a 7% margin, that is an extremely significant figure.
While there is a tendency for people to get carried away with the historical significance of Obama’s victory, it must be analysed in context. As I have already detailed, Obama’s campaign organisation and budget was infinitely superior to that of McCain. Also, in fairness to McCain, George Bush has been the most unpopular US president since polling began and it was always going to be an uphill struggle for any Republican candidate.
Notwithstanding that, however, McCain did make a few unforgivable blunders, the main one being his selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. With the selection of Palin, he cancelled out his most convincing claim to the presidency: experience. And in my opinion, Palin brought in very few extra voters. Those who could relate to her would probably have voted Republican anyway.
The idea that she would attract embittered Hillary Clinton supporters was ludicrous seeing as she embodies the antithesis of everything Senator Clinton ever stood for. McCain’s erratic reaction to the economic crisis in the US was another factor. He seemed elitist and out of touch and despite his best efforts, he could not counter Obama’s message of hope when it came to economic revival and wealth redistribution.
When asked about my time on the Obama campaign, two questions usually come to the fore. The first one often is do I think he will be assassinated. Because Senator Obama has been compared so often to John F. Kennedy, the analogy is simply made.
Having met the man and staffed an event at which he spoke, all I can say is that the security operation around him is second to none. The CIA screen all staff and conduct security sweeps of places he is due to visit days in advance of when he actually arrives. The second question tends to be if I think he is capable of achieving the so-called change he has promised.
Undoubtedly, President Obama will face very tough challenges in his first year in office and cannot hope to fully implement his ambitious plans for reform. He will, however, be a revolutionary change to what Americans have been used to over the past eight years with President Bush. And, while maybe I too have been brainwashed by the campaign spin, I do believe that Yes He Can.
To read more about David
Traynor’s trip, visit his blog: