Friday 28 December 2012

Gosh! You mean grassroots campaigning actually works?

In the Boston Globe, Michael Kranish analyses the story behind Mitt Romney’s loss in this year’s presidential election campaign.

Amid a catalogue of errors, one mistake will stand out for most British Liberal Democrats:
Rich Beeson [one of Romney’s political directors] ...said that only after the election did he realize what Obama was doing with so much manpower on the ground. Obama had more than 3,000 paid workers nationwide, compared with 500 for Romney, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
“Now I know what they were doing with all the staffs and ­offices,” Beeson said. “They were literally creating a one-to-one contact with voters,” something that Romney did not have the staff to match.
One-to-one contact with voters? No kidding.

Admittedly, the Obama campaign’s grassroots techniques were somewhat more sophisticated than your average British local by-election operation:
Democrats said they followed the trail blazed in 2004 by the Bush campaign which used an array of databases to “microtarget” voters and a sophis­ticated field organization to turn them out. Obama won in part by updating the GOP’s innovation.
Nevertheless, the basic case for grassroots campaigning remains the same. A shame it was not understood by the Liberal Democrat leadership in the 2010 general election.

Nick Clegg elbowed Chris Rennard aside and installed a group of advertising and PR people to run the party’s campaign. These people had no serious experience of political campaigning but believed this did not matter. They were convinced that a ‘ground war’ (i.e. grassroots campaigning) was more or less redundant and that the Liberal Democrat campaign could rely on an ‘air war’ (i.e. a nationwide marketing campaign). The success of the first televised leaders’ debate and the ensuing ‘Cleggmania’ served only to reinforce their prejudices. When on polling day, support collapsed like a soufflé, they had no idea why.

Of course, general election campaigns (or any other nationwide campaign) cannot be conducted solely via a ‘ground war’ but require a judicious mix of ground and air tactics. But as voters become more individualised in their outlook, more consumer-savvy and more sceptical about politics, they will need and expect more human contact, not less.

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