The Candidate-Nominee Crossover
The first article in this series described how some of the most astute political observers were "blindsided by Hope" and Barack Obama’s historic victory, convinced America would continue to be ruled by Freak Show politics. Eleven organizational principles guided Obama’s campaign for the nomination, which relied heavily on grass roots and community organizing tactics. The successful "early states" strategy provided enough momentum to carry Obama over the finish line, a race he won by the only measure that counted: delegates.
This article offers a candid assessment of the campaign’s challenges as Obama goes from being a candidate to the nominee. Obama will adapt his management approach to the general election campaign, internalizing electoral strategy as an important part of the corporate culture. The internal challenge is melding a grass roots movement with the Democratic Party establishment and limiting expenditures on paid political ads and services. The external challenge is to avoid inevitable
distractions and stay on message. Obama can reassure voters it is "safe" to vote for him by convincing them he can best promote their enlightened self-interest and through his selection of a running mate and a shadow cabinet. The result could be an historic and major pendulum swing in American politics.
No sign of Obama hinted some sensed in 2004 that Obama would make history.
But few expected it would be so soon.
Melding Grass Roots Movement with Democratic Party Machinery
The best evidence to date of Barack Obama’s executive leadership is his success in organizing and running a campaign for the nomination. He will undoubtedly apply some of his organizing principles to the general election campaign, continuing to conduct it like a business and eschewing staff "drama". We’ve already seeing the expansion of community organizing techniques through the Obama Organizing Fellows program that is training 3600 volunteers, deployment of paid staff across the country, and last month’s national Vote for Change voter registration drive. The ground game for November has begun.
One of the challenges is how the campaign assimilates Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton campaign staff. No time was lost in Obama’s corporate takeover of the Democratic National Committee. By moving DNC staff from Washington DC to his Chicago headquarters Obama simultaneously strengthens oversight, reduces inside-the-Beltway influence, and improves prospects for a homogeneous corporate culture that improves prospects for realizing synergies from the merger.
It is too soon to assess how well Clinton’s supporters will be assimilated, but that may be a lesser problem than melding the Obama movement with established Democratic parties in some states. His grass roots organization has brought many new participants into the political process for the first time, and this key group’s expectation of change threatens the status quo. This risk is smaller in states where the party was weak and new blood will be welcomed. But in states where Democrats are well established and organized, resistance to opening up the process to these idealistic newcomers is natural.
Embracing Innovation and Resisting Waste
Obama for America has been uncanny in its ability to securitize Hope, reflected in record-breaking fundraising and number of first-time donors. This success was helped by the perception the campaign managed its resources wisely. Both fundraising and grass roots organizing over the Obama web site made old-fashioned mailed solicitations and paid phone banking appear wasteful, if not obsolete. But the campaign is not perfect. Statistical quotas set for field staff, such as voter contacts per day, were more formulaic than qualitative. And the security of online phone banking is not yet adequate to deter the shenanigans that the Republican dirty tricksters will be only too happy to attempt.
The primary contest confirmed the principle that "free media trumps paid media" as a paradigm of modern politics. Purchased placements and services may have been the largest variable cost of the campaign. Vast amounts were spent on TV and radio ads in some states where Obama nonetheless performed very poorly. Free media activity routinely was both more influential and effective. Paid advertising proved increasingly ineffective in swaying voters for any candidate. Even Hillary’s widely publicized "It’s 3AM" ad generated mixed reviews; it also prompted numerous parodiesand the rapid response of a remix rebuttal. Instead, advertising has become a weapon to weaken the other side financially. Far more effective were news headlines, televised debates, late night and comedy show appearances, and the wide variety of YouTube video posts.
The campaign’s growing ranks of paid political consultants will, however, increase pressure to purchase advertising and other traditional political services. The consultants’ business and the products they sell pose the most serious challenge to financial management of the fall campaign. It may be up to the investors (fundraisers and donors) to insist that campaign managers limit legacy practices of the political campaigning industry and instead budget more for modern, innovative approaches.
The general election is a contest for electoral votes just as the primary contest was about delegates. The Obama organization internalized the primary strategy in a way that ensured everyone on the team understood the goal was to win Iowa and the early states to obtain the momentum for victory. These objectives became part of the values of the campaign organization’s culture. So what is the strategy for winning the November election, and can it be similarly internalized by the organization?
There is no mystery about the strategy for this general election. Two recent articles by Robert Creamer, Obama's Path to Victory in Novemberand Ten Key Steps to Put Obama Over the Top in November, lay it out clearly. Creamer is an authoritative political strategist and consultant in Chicago (his wife is Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky) with strong ties to progressive politics. I mentioned him last year in a diary entitled Never Too Old - My Camp Obama Experience or Why I Am Campaigning Again After 42 Years. Creamer believes this year may produce a "transformational election" with a large electoral margin for Obama and strong Democratic gains in the House and Senate. I fully agree.
Creamer predicts that "this election will be decided less by the strategies of a few political consultants than by what millions of everyday political activists do to make their mark on history." The task of those activists is to change voter behavior and break voting patterns of the past. This includes getting people to vote who have not done so previously. Based on current polling and past behavior as the best indicator of future voting, Creamer believes Obama already has a slight edge in the electoral votes needed to win the Presidency, and that his ability to turn out African-American and young voters can win him several swing states. He flatly asserts that McCain cannot win without Ohio and that an Obama victory there would be sufficient to deny McCain the Presidency.
According to Creamer, the Democrats’ new resource advantage and the organizations mobilized during the long primary campaign will allow Obama to compete for votes in 21-23 swing states. He proposes a "Spread the Field" strategy across these states, while fighting "tooth and nail" for Ohio, forcing McCain to devote resources there. Creamer suggests a differentiated approach guided by local demographics in the swing states. I anticipate that the campaign will enthusiastically internalize a "Spread the Field" strategy, making it a critical cultural value and pervasive element of the Obama organization’s planning and execution.
We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism... But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, "Not this time."
-- Barack Obama, Philadelphia PA, March 18, 2008
Making Obama "Safe" for America
A major challenge for Barack Obama this fall, as Robert Creamer describes it, is to convince skeptical swing voters that Obama is "safely on their side." David Axelrod has repeatedly pointed out that the more people get to know Barack Obama, the better he does in the polls. And according to Creamer, the opposite is true for John McCain. Barack Obama’s personal challenge this fall will be to stay on message, continuing to speak truth and promote reason while addressing the critical political issues of the day, and explaining his policy positions and approach to solving our greatest problems. He needs to highlight his differences with John McCain, who voted with Bush 95% of the time, has no plan to get out of Iraq, opposes serious reform of healthcare, trade and energy, and is out of step with most Americans on social issues.
The Freak Show politics of the Clinton-Bush years relies on distractions from the issues, manipulating the public using fear and deception to vote against their own enlightened self-interest. Such attempts to influence voters will continue and increase in the months ahead, although Obama benefits from having already been targeted by serious distractions during the primaries. However, looking back at the ABC debate, it is also clear Obama needs to more firmly control the conversation to remain focused on the issues that affect voters because there is no doubt that he is more in tune than McCain with the issues that concern a majority of Americans.
Obama’s community organizing assumes: "Relationships built on self-interest".
The challenge is to counter the manipulation of voters by fear and deception,
and ensure that citizens vote for their enlightened self-interest.
But probably nothing will reassure skeptical voters about Obama as much as giving them a clear picture about the Administration he would install in Washington. In his campaign for the nomination, Obama attracted proven political operatives from past Presidential races to his organization and respected politicians to support his candidacy. He now needs to demonstrate what his White House and Cabinet will look like. He has cited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as a model he admires, and he has the opportunity to emulate Lincoln’s style of leadership. If he can leave Denver not only with a strong running mate, but with a shadow cabinet that reflects the post-partisan politics he espouses, it will do more than any words can to dispel lingering voter concern about the "safety" of electing Barack Obama.
While canvassing for Obama this past year, I always told voters this is the most important election of my lifetime, perhaps as historic as Franklin Roosevelt’s first election in 1932 or Lincoln’s in1860. My sense is many Americans agree, especially those who know their history. We are facing the consequences of reckless military adventure, failed fiscal and monetary policies, a world of alienated friends and emboldened enemies, and a decline in respect for the rule of law. Yet somehow we have been given the opportunity to elect fresh political leadership that offers America hope and the prospect of governing on the basis of fundamental principles and common sense.
wizinit is the nom de guerre of a veteran diplomat who writes both serious analysis and political satire. If you would like to be notified of new posts by wizinit join Food Tasters For Obama.