5 lessons for Labour from Obama 2012

November 7, 2012 2:00 pm

Well that wasn’t as close as some pundits had led us to believe (at least in electoral college terms). The much vaunted Obama ground game, with superb targeting and huge numbers of volunteers meant that in the so called “toss-up states” Obama was able to clean up. As Anthony Painter and Marcus Roberts rightly note, the 2008 Obama campaign is a better model for Labour to emulate than its more rigorous but less human 2012 counterpart, but this campaign still provides crucial pointers for Labour ahead of 2015. There will of course be oodles of posts on this topic in the coming months, so I’ll spare you too much detail for now – but here are 5 key points:

Polling works – political polling is often derided in the UK. The spectre of 1992 looms large indeed. But polling companies have come on
leaps and bounds in the last twenty years, and as anyone who has been following Nate Silver and 538 this year knows – the polls were pretty
much spot on in all of the battleground states. Labour people understandably like to be pessimistic about polling, but if we’re ahead by 5% going into the final weeks of the General Election campaign, we can be fairly confident that we’re going to win. That might require a mindset change for some in the party.

GOTV works – the Obama ground game may be a more technical beast than its 2008 forebear, but it worked. The Obama coalition held up and there was still a big turnout amongst two of Obama’s strongest sections of support – ethnic minority voters and the young. That might
not have as high (thanks to voter registration) without the decision to invest easily and early in field offices across the country, because…

The ground war beat the air war – Romney may have spent a huge amount in TV advertising (as did Obama), but it became increasingly clear in the final weeks that Romney didn’t have the number of field offices needed to win an organisation war in the battleground states. Whilst Romney was fighting a drawn out primary campaign (filled with hostages to fortune), Obama was assiduously (re)building a campaign network in states like Ohio. Whilst Romney spent Election Day attending campaign events, Obama knew that his volunteers and organisers had “got his back”. The lesson for Labour? Invest heavily an early in organisers in marginal seats. Nothing else you can spend money on will have the same impact. Nothing. This process has already started but it needs to be quicker.

The debates matter (but not too much) – The first debate clearly mattered, and it would be foolish to argue otherwise. It gave Mitt Romney a way back into the race when his campaign looked tired and stuttering, and it (briefly) knocked the shine off Obama’s otherwise cool, calm and confident public persona. Obama didn’t look hungry in the first debate, by the end of the race he looked ravenous. In Britain too, the debate’s will matter, but they won’t have half as much impact as the media buzz might suggest. The party needs to make sure it sticks to its plan, doesn’t lose it’s head and works around the debates, not focus entirely on them.

The government doesn’t always lose when the economy is in a mess – here’s the fly in the ointment, perhaps, for Labour. The Tories are presiding over a collapsing economy in Britain, and some in the party act as though that will hand Labour victory. Wrong. Mitt Romney showed that unless you can offer a clear, positive alternative, you’re susceptible to marginal improvements in the economy. With unemployment down and growth up in the weeks before the election, the voters were more easily convinced that Obama was on the right track. Conventional wisdom says he should have been dead in the water with the economy where it is. But Romney gave him space to move – an he took it. Labour needs to have more in the locker than not being the Tories, especially on the economy. We don’t just need a plan for growth – we need a plan for what happens when real growth returns. Because if it happens in 2014/15 and we’re not ready, we’ll be toast.

There are only two and a half years (pretty much to the day) until the next General Election.

The Labour Party needs to get itself – and members – fired up, and ready to go.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    I do hope we’re not gonna have much more on the American election.  Something far too many British liberal-lefties have blatantly failed to recognise is it is actually not our election and is really none of our business.

    To be pronouncing endlessly our opinions on it shows a lack of respect for a nation that we are not a part of. They are entitled to get on with it without our entreaties to vote one way or another – mostly one way. If I was an American I’d almost have been tempted to vote Romney just to stick two fingers up at us Brits for our arrogance and presumptiveness. Especially much of the response today, thanking Americans for voting the “right” way, has been cringeworthy.

    How would we like it if the Americans got on our case haranguing us about how to vote in our elections? My guess is we wouldn’t like it one bit.

    • Dave Postles

      Quite honestly, if a candidate like the mendacious and cynical Romney had been up for election in this country, I’d have welcomed advice against him.  I’m looking forward to see how the UAW case against him pans out.  

      • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

        As a friend of in Ohio said on this point earlier:

        “Totally agree, it feels so obnoxious. UK peeps comments re: US politics have been worst part of this election. #sorryguysbutstfu”

        • Dave Postles

          As my wife, a US citizen said: ‘I’m grateful for your support’ and she donated $100 to Obama’s ground game.  I was in Cincy the week of 22 October and no one complained to me about UK comments.  If your friend wants a liar in the White House, fine.  If your friend wants someone who exports US jobs through Bain, but professes he will create US jobs, fine.  If your friend wants someone who encourages Netanyahu to bomb Iran, NOT fine – that affects us all.  You know what?: people in the US, especially Republicans, constantly make comments about the rest of the world and pretend to be the moral conscience of the West.   If you dish it out, you should take it too.   

        • Dave Postles

          As my wife, a US citizen said: ‘I’m grateful for your support’ and she donated $100 to Obama’s ground game.  I was in Cincy the week of 22 October and no one complained to me about UK comments.  If your friend wants a liar in the White House, fine.  If your friend wants someone who exports US jobs through Bain, but professes he will create US jobs, fine.  If your friend wants someone who encourages Netanyahu to bomb Iran, NOT fine – that affects us all.  You know what?: people in the US, especially Republicans, constantly make comments about the rest of the world and pretend to be the moral conscience of the West.   If you dish it out, you should take it too.   

          • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

            Hi Dave. Thanks for the rather charming thoughts – I’ll pass them on (she’s an Obama supporter by the way).

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

            Isn’t the point that as the most powerful country in the West, the outcome of the election affects everyone? 

          • Brumanuensis

            Precisely, although I’ll admit that Martin Amis’s appearance on Newsnight was a bit cringe-worthy.

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             It’s nowhere near ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and whatever other bons mots and invective people like Rumsfeld and Cheney uttered. 

          • Dave Postles

             Here’s one for you, from a US citizen:
            ‘ ‘I’ll have much more to say about this over the course of the week. But
            tonight, America told the guy who’s been trying that they appreciate it.
            And they told the crazy party: you’re crazy.’
            (Michael Tomasky)

    • Jeremy_Preece

      Ben, I would love to forget about the USA, but we live in an inter-dependant world, and their Fanny and Freddie banking crisis had everything to do with the start of the world-wide banking crisis that also stuffed as and others.

      So I do care about the USA election. I also cared about the French election as it marks the beginnings of Europe moving away from endless austerity.
      I would love to see the German government loose an election and then we might be on our way up and out of this rut!
       

      • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

        Hi Jeremy, I’m not suggesting people should forget about the USA or ignore the elections. It’s just that sensitive subject of telling people what to do. Americans are pretty spiky about their national identity and their democracy and are quite isolationist with it too – they do not like the impression a bunch of Brits or other foreigners are dictating to them what to do. However I think there is also a wider principle here of respect for democracy. We are fine showing an interest and expressing our preference, but a lot of the talk coming from lefties here has gone way beyond that.

        • Jeremy_Preece

          Hi Ben, yes the Americans are pretty isolationist, but their activities economically and their foreign policy makes their politics affect all of us!

          Anyway, this week I just thank God that we have seen the back of Mitt Romney. That would have been bad news for all of us!

  • Jeremy_Preece

    First off, congratualations to Obama, and what a relief!

    Your final point Mark is absolutely the most important of all. We are in the position of being blamed for the crsis in the first place – because Labour was in power. In fact the Republicans have the same handicap. So to a point, no matter what the Tories do the electorate want to say that it was all Labour’s fault in the first place. It was not. And the Tories had the same idea about spending as Labour, but wanted no regulation of the banks at all.

    We absolutely have to have a plan, and we really need to look like the next government waiting in the wings. Without the plan we cannot really talk to voters. Every time that the voter agrees about how bad this that and the other is under the Tories, they ask “what would Labour do”. If we have no answer then the voters will not be persuded to vote for a party that is simply “not the Tories”.

    With the splits and infighting within the Tory party coming to light again, let alone the splits between Tory and LibDem, I just wonder how different it would be if Labour was there – up and running and with clear policy direction (if not detail). I venture to think that if we were in that posistion the next election might not even have had to wait until 2015.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      “…So to a point, no matter what the Tories do the electorate want to say that it was all Labour’s fault in the first place. It was not. “

      Well, whose fault was it?  Labour was in power for 11 full years prior to the crash.  It matters not at all what the tories might have done to conjure a worse result from the decade preceding the crash – the fact is that they were not in power, so what they might or might not have done to make things better or worse is completely irrelevant.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

        But that’s because you follow the austerity creed. It doesn’t work.

        And how can it be specifically Labour’s fault – when recession hit worldwide. I think what is encouraging here is that the choice was very clearly between two visions of the way things should be. I think that’s what Ed is looking towards. You have made it clear that its not a vision you favour – that’s fine, because as I have said many times, you aren’t someone I would see as a likely Labour voter and you live in a parliamentary constituency where we haven’t a prayer

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          All Governments affected by the collective insanity of deficit spending in that decade bear fault, and those that failed to police prudent banking bear fault as well.  In Britain’s case, it was Labour.  A matter of fact.

          You assume I delight in austerity.  I do not, I am sad about it.  But if for the previous decade we had not spent so much (mostly ineffectively, but that is another matter), then we would not have to pull our belts in so many notches now.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

            The Conservatives and the Liberal democrats fully supported Labour’s spending programme and pledged themselves to the same levels of spending.

            Nothing wrong with that: the fault was its naive trust of high finance for which it is culpable. But the Tories held the same view. 

            I don’t have any problem with high public spending in itself.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            It does not matter what the tories and Lib Dems supported, as a matter of logic all parties can be equally wrong.

            I also do not have a problem with high spending “in itself”, but I have a significant problem with supporting any spending whether high or low if revenues over a Parliamentary term do not exceed spending.  So if we want to spend a lot, we must raise a lot.  And there is a very practical limit to how much tax we can raise before people get angry and the businesses move elsewhere.

            As my grandmother says (and she is in her mid 90s, and has lived through all sorts of South American financial national nonsenses), “do not spend more than you earn”.

            I saw today a report from the British pension industry that declared that by 2100 many people (those born in 2000) would be living to over 100, with 125 being possible and many more than statistical outliers living to 125.  The report was based on some very in depth analysis by the Actuaries, and from a medical point of view, there is little to argue with.  What no party is doing is addressing what the costs of social care will be in that era.  We certainly cannot afford to support people with pensions and medical care to the current extent when retirement may last for over 50 years.

          • Alexwilliamz

            How can this be true when we kept on getting told about how we are all having less healthy diets, not getting enough exercise and apparently drinking too much. Besides I’m sure the Health Bill will resolve this issue. 

            out of interest did the actuaries build in the effect of a longer work life into the calculations, I’d be interested to know. How much extrapolation was going on etc etc

          • Hugh

             “out of interest did the actuaries build in the effect of a longer work life into the calculations, I’d be interested to know.”

            Given that they are actuaries, I think it is likely they have thought of that.

          • Alexwilliamz

            You would hope so, but you never know what constraints were used and what the purpose of the calculations were. Also how did they work it out? At the end of the day I’d be surprised if some dubious extrapolation may have slipped in somewhere. I did teach someone who became an actuary and since then I have less faith in their rigour, especially when calculating things outside a relatively safe confidence interval and especially anything where the immediate financial implications are not critical.

          • Alexwilliamz

            You would hope so, but you never know what constraints were used and what the purpose of the calculations were. Also how did they work it out? At the end of the day I’d be surprised if some dubious extrapolation may have slipped in somewhere. I did teach someone who became an actuary and since then I have less faith in their rigour, especially when calculating things outside a relatively safe confidence interval and especially anything where the immediate financial implications are not critical.

          • Hugh

            The Conservatives didn’t “fully support” Labour’s spending plans any more than Brown fully supported the Tories’ spending plans when he promised to stick to them for the first two years after 1997: in both cases it was politically necessary because of the fears the opposition had stirred up.

            There was everything wrong with it given that there was – as even Balls now admits – a significant structural deficit: ie one that would have to be tackled regardless of the global financial crisis.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001102865655 John Ruddy

        You’ve been told many times before the answer to that. If you choose to ignore what people say about the cause of the global financial crisis, and why one party in one country didnt cause the near collapse of the global financial market, theres no hope.

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          And what do you think the answer is?  The problems many countries in the western world face now are caused by gross over-spending by Governments, and ignorance of the venality of the market. If you take a broader perspective, you will find that some countries that took a more prudent approach are not suffering to the same extent, and in some cases growth restricted only by the cold caught from the irresponsible countries, such as Britain.

          The first is directly the fault of Governments, and our government does not escape that.  The second is indirectly enabled by Governments, and the Labour Party of 1997-2008 is as guilty as any other Government.

          If Britain had lived within the means – not running deficits at all – between 2001 and 2008, and if the Government of the period had been stricter about how the banks operated, we would not be in this position.  It is quite simple.

          So, I do not feel frightened by your sneer about me being “told” an answer. Perhaps you should consider that in general a jeering mob is probably wrong, and in this case, clearly so.  Tell me, do you always follow the fractured and inchoate “thinking” of the jeering mob?

          • Alexwilliamz

            So if the gvt had acted contrary to most of its western neighbours and contrary to most governments before it, then it would have not  been responsible? Basically its like playing a really nasty version of pass the parcel. Whoever it lands on when the music stops is fully responsible. I appeciate your powers of hindsight and tbh yep I’d agree government were foolish to not take some measures (overheated property market) but had they done so the political backlash would have been something to behold. Yep spending could have been better directed but again I did not notice a lot of voices from other parties suggesting alternatives, or do you believe that the present health bill would have created a leaner, more efficient and effective health service. I shudder to think how much more money may become wasted, I certainly see no reason why it should produce better quality for less money.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    By the way, did anyone else think that Obham’s victory speech sounded distinctly “one nation” – even if it was the USA rather than the UK?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

      Very much so. 

    • Brumanuensis

      Ha! I remarked to a friend watching with me that he’d borrowed the ‘One Nation’ line. Good to see I wasn’t alone in my observation.

  • http://twitter.com/IamalrightJack IamalrightJack

    Good article but we are going to suffers another defeat. Either everyone needs the heads checking in labour or I’m completley wrong and history will not repeat itself as it has in the last 100 yrs. The fact is just like in 1979- 1997 the Tories won by holding the electorate to ransom and spreading fear of a incoming Labour govt will plunge the ecconomy back into recession like the 1970′s. They are going to do it again and people will be scared that labour will create another mess. At the end of the day all elections are won and lost on economic credibility and people believe we created the mess. Hence, we have no economic credibilty. This is excerbated by labours silence every time they are accused. People percieve this silence as admission that it was our fault. The Tories will also argue in 2015: lets not let Labour spoil all the progress we have made in the last 5 yrs. We must stay the cause but we can’t let labour drag us back to the mess- works all the time for the Tories. The truth is Labour know all this but won’t argue their case when they are accused. So they must be planning to lose. Also I rember a interview during the labour conference 2010. A Labour MP admitted to Andrew Niel that MP’s have been told not to defend our economic record. Finally read this: Finally Exposed! The Deficit Myth! David Cameron When are You Going to Apologise? http://huff.to/QFYtKm via @HuffPost .

  • http://twitter.com/IamalrightJack IamalrightJack

    Good article but we are going to suffers another defeat. Either everyone needs the heads checking in labour or I’m completley wrong and history will not repeat itself as it has in the last 100 yrs. The fact is just like in 1979- 1997 the Tories won by holding the electorate to ransom and spreading fear of a incoming Labour govt will plunge the ecconomy back into recession like the 1970′s. They are going to do it again and people will be scared that labour will create another mess. At the end of the day all elections are won and lost on economic credibility and people believe we created the mess. Hence, we have no economic credibilty. This is excerbated by labours silence every time they are accused. People percieve this silence as admission that it was our fault. The Tories will also argue in 2015: lets not let Labour spoil all the progress we have made in the last 5 yrs. We must stay the cause but we can’t let labour drag us back to the mess- works all the time for the Tories. The truth is Labour know all this but won’t argue their case when they are accused. So they must be planning to lose. Also I rember a interview during the labour conference 2010. A Labour MP admitted to Andrew Niel that MP’s have been told not to defend our economic record. Finally read this: Finally Exposed! The Deficit Myth! David Cameron When are You Going to Apologise? http://huff.to/QFYtKm via @HuffPost .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1131582271 Alex Harvey

    *debates

  • Brumanuensis

    I was pleasantly surprised last night/this morning. A much more resounding victory than I’d imagined, although the nerves did fray a bit between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. when it looked too close for comfort.

    Although it’s a disappointment that the Democrats haven’t regained the House of Representatives, despite picking up a couple of seats overall, the results in the Senate (+2) are superb and very welcome.

    Additionally, a raft of progressive state measures passed in ballot initiatives. Marriage equality in Maine, Maryland and (likely) Washington State. An anti-equality amendment defeated in Minnesota. Sensible drug policies in Massachusetts, Washington State and Colorado (alas not in Oregon – they’ll nip to Washington now surely? – and Arkansas). Florida rejecting an anti-abortion initiative, as well as an anti-Obamacare one. California passing a tax increase and rejecting an anti-union measure – although not abolishing the death penalty, sadly. 

    All in all, a good night for the progressive movement.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    Spot on Mike.
    Why is it that if all three parties followed the same policies on spending and on not regulating the banks (the Tories wanting no control at all rather than Labour wanting controls that were too weak) …. why is it that the narritive out there is that Labour are no good with the economy and the Tories are.

    As time goes on I become more convinced each day that austerity is going nowhere. The deficit is the negative difference between the government’s expenditure and revenue. Making people unemployed and letting companies like vodafone off billions in corporation tax reduces the revenue, costs money and shrinks the economy.

    If Roosevelt had not introduced the New Deal in the USA, the 1930′s depression would never have ended. It is time that history is repeated.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    I doubt whether the poor sods who can’t afforsd to retire and are still working in the 70′s and beyond are going to live to be 100. Too many are being asked to work until they drop dead.

    When there are so many young people who can’t get their first job – it makes no sense!

    • AlanGiles

      Exactly – and this ridiculous policy is supported by both major parties. Frankly, I am very grateful I was born when I was. I did quite demanding physical work, and even though my general health is good – much better than many my age, the arthritis I now have in my hands as well as elsewhere would make my job physically impossible.

      One other point I would make in connection with this article: I don’t think you can take too many lessons from the USA about how to conduct British elections. The two countries are very different as are their electorate and what inspires them. I know some people in this country like to think we are all American these days (for example, the public go to see a “movie” rather than a “film” which we did in the 50s and 60s – when did they last go to see stills in a cinema?), but the two countries are very different, no real third  or small parties, which I feel will become more important in the UK.

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  • Jeremy_Preece

    Totally off the point I know… but does anyone else on this site find that sometimes when they reply to a comment, their replies appear as a beginning of a brand new comment?

  • Daniel Speight

    So where does the US election result leave Netanyahu and the Israeli government. He was seen to be working for a Romney victory and Obama’s loyalty to that government must be somewhat diminished.

    Maybe the next four years will be the period in which we see the two-state solution and the end of settlements become a reality. Certainly Abbas has taken steps towards reconciliation recently.

  • Serbitar

    Although the British and Americans speak the same language, more or less, believe you me America is a genuinely foreign country.  I’m not sure that parallels can really be drawn between the success of a genuinely inspirational, charismatic and skilled individual like Obama overseas and the potential electability of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom. 

    (I note that Ed Miliband’s name did not appear anywhere in the article above. )

    When all is said and done Obama is probably more right wing than many a Tory!

    • AlanGiles

      I am always a little taken aback by the almost sentimental view some in the UK have of the USA.
       
      One example: how often have we had the unseemly spectacle of a man held on death row for a decade or more, people of plainly diminished responsibility, who are then given a lethal injection in frtont of an audience of “victim’s families”. This continues regardless of whether it is a Republican or Democrat in the White House – even under Obama. Whenever did the great man ever speak out about it?.
       
      Any country that can condone or countenance such behaviour, and enjoy such basic revenge with such relish is not one I have great emotional attachment to.
       
       

  • http://twitter.com/youngian67 Ian Young

    Also Labour might like to learn from Obama is that you do not have to vote with tea party isolationists and the most reactionary elements in your country’s politics in order to defeat your main opponent.

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