5 lessons for Labour from Obama 2012

7th November, 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.

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