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A better strategy for presidential candidates

The invisible primary is well underway. From Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul to Marco Rubio, candidates are already angling for votes in the prized Iowa caucus. News cycles are abuzz with speculation about who the candidates will be and what their chances are, but much of this coverage asks the wrong question. Instead of focusing on the candidates themselves and their fundraising spoils, we should pay close attention to who the candidates hire as their pit crew for their field campaign. Campaign managers must secure staff who know how to build people power in an electoral system where money, marketing, and data are king. Nothing wins elections like votes, and to win votes, you have to know how to win people.

It was famed community organizer Saul Alinsky who once said that there are two forms of power: organized money and organized people. Our electoral system weeds out candidates without access to money, and both the eventual Republican and Democratic candidates will enjoy sizable war chests once partisan donors close ranks around their respective nominees. Candidates’ competitive advantage can come from the ways in which their staff — particularly their chosen field operatives — decide to organize the candidate’s constituents.

In a world of increasingly polarized politics and hyper-competitive presidential campaigns, most of what the campaigns actually do does not have much impact on the outcome of the race. Despite all the focus on the horse race in political campaigns, the effect of party conventions, presidential debates, and candidate gaffes pale in comparison to the effect of voters’ perceptions of the economy. Much of what the campaigns do in the horse race cancels each other out.

The challenge for candidates seeking to build a winning campaign in 2016, then, is to identify a team of people who know where to find a competitive edge in a world where those edges are increasingly elusive.

Obama thanking his volunteers on Election Day 2012 by TonyTheTiger. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

For many years, campaigns thought that organizing people meant marketing candidates to voters in the same way that we market cereal, ketchup, or cars. In 2012, however, Obama’s ground game engaged more people in the campaign than any other campaign that preceded it, with over 2.2 million volunteers. Those volunteers were organized into 10,000 neighborhood teams, each of which were staffed by 30,000 leaders and core team members who devoted more than ten hours per week to the campaign. How?

They hired organizers. In so doing, they made the campaign a vehicle for political participation.

Obama staffers were trained to organize themselves out of a job by enlisting supporters like Shirley Bright. Bright, an Obama volunteer from North Philadelphia, had never before been involved in electoral politics. She remembers walking into a field office in 2008 and asking what she could do to help. Instead of thrusting a get-out-the-vote script and a telephone upon her, the organizer asked her why she supported Obama, shared his personal story, and then asked her to take on a volunteer leadership role. After all, Bright knew the intricacies of her community far better than a 20-something staffer who had just arrived, bleary-eyed from working nonstop in other primary states. “It’s urban,” Bright said of her community. “It’s in transition right now. It’s been becoming gentrified, but a lot of the people still live here who lived there for 30, 40 years or more. It has projects. It has newly redeveloped houses. It has row houses that have been on a block for many years, co-existing with blocks where houses have been torn down.”

Research tells us that ground games are at their best when local volunteers like Bright are engaging their peers and neighbors in authentic conversations about the election. Recruiting, training, and managing the armies of volunteers needed to do that at the scale needed to win a presidential election is no easy task, however. What the Obama campaign taught us is that organizing people is not about marketing a candidate, but instead about building a campaign that gives real responsibility to ordinary people.

Replicating what the Obama campaign did is not as easy as learning a formula. Candidates who hope to model themselves on the Obama campaign by imitating high-tech start-ups will find themselves with long voter lists and lots of money, but nobody to do the work of actually speaking with the voters. If candidates really want an Obama-style ground game, they must hire staff who know how to lead an operation that puts people at the center, invests in training them, and is willing to take risks by empowering them with access to resources, like both parties’ much-vaunted voter databases.

Every 2016 presidential candidate is going to have an expert team of lawyers, consultants, and media leads. What could differentiate the campaigns from each other is the extent to which they hire field staff who know how to build people power.

Heading image: Obama Austin by roxannejomitchell. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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