The Evolution of Campaigning – Obama’s influence on the Labour Party

Antonio Dorileo

With around 500 days to the next General Election in the UK, and the local and European elections just around the corner, all parties are looking at how they can improve and change the way they campaign and target voters, wanting to emulate the hype, success and organisation of the Obama campaigns.

To learn more about the influence of and lessons from the US President’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, Danny Wilding and I attended a Labour Party event this week entitled ‘Learning the Lessons from the Obama Campaigns’.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have employed members of Obama’s top team to much fanfare, with the Tories taking on the President’s campaign chief Jim Messina, and Labour employing Obama’s community campaign guru Arnie Graf, as well as former head of the rapid response unit Matthew McGregor.

Arnie Graf, the community campaign guru who taught a young Barack the style and organisation that would dominate his campaigning, was hired by Labour in 2011. Since then, he has been seeking to turn Labour from a Party organised on traditional lines, to one that is much more rooted in communities across the UK, and seen outside of election time, as well as during.

Graf’s graft, backed up by studies in the US and UK, show that engagement with voters is essential to winning. He’s noted that people who are not contacted at all by a party have around a 37 per cent probability of voting. If those same people are contacted once, this voting probability jumps to 46 per cent. Two contacts made with them, and you’re now at 63 per cent. Meet them twice and call them at home once, and the likelihood that they come out and vote for your party stands at 77 per cent. It is this logic that has driven the organisation of Obama’s successful campaigns, and now Labour’s.

With limited investment of time and effort, a probable non-voter has been transformed into a person that is not only much more likely to vote, but, because they are engaged and involved in the Party, will be more likely to help meet and contact new supporters and persuades them to do the same.

With this in mind, the Labour Party is seeking to transform itself into a community campaigning and organising movement, beyond what many saw as a centralised command and control structure in years gone by. Exemplified by the fact that there are now many more organisers and campaigners on the ground than ever before, the aim is to become a Party that is not only seen at election times, but deeply rooted in communities, and highly visible to local residents.

This is most evident in Stella Creasy MP’s campaign against payday loans, or in the employment fairs that Labour MP’s hold across the country, like that discussed by Pat McFadden MP at PLMR’s Westminster Breakfast. All part of the Party’s new ethos of doing politics to people, not at people.

With the help of Matthew McGregor, the Labour Party is also changing the online and digital element of its campaigning. No longer viewed as an add-on to traditional door knocking or leafleting, this is becoming a central part of the integrated way in which voters and supporters are contacted and engaged with.

Campaigns can now gather information left behind by people across the internet, from likes on Facebook to retweets on Twitter. Armed with this, volunteers, organisers and campaigners can know when they knock on a voter’s door exactly what to say, and the type of voter they’re saying it to – be they firm, wavering or leaning – before they have even walk up the garden path.

Allied to this, email contact with voters and supporters needn’t be a standardised message, sent out to all. With the mass of information gathered from supporters simply on how they manage their email – from not opening it at all, to following through the requested action – everything about them can be tailored to the individual, from who is sending the email, to what time it’s sent, to what the ask is. In doing so, the messages are more effective, the campaigning is more focused and the ask is acted on – another key area in which McGregor’s influence is felt.

McGregor, known as Obama’s digital attack dog, led the rapid response unit designed to counter Romney at every turn. He ate, slept and breathed Romney, knew the man and his policies inside and out, and was able to have very targeted counters at every turn. For the Labour Party he heads up the Party’s digital offering, extending his remit beyond response and rebuttal.

As well as community organising, Obama’s campaigns were widely known for their incredibly targeted and focused approach, as PLMR’s Tim Knight experienced when volunteering on the Obama campaign in Virginia in 2012. It is this targeting that McGregor has brought to Labour’s campaign strategy.

With declining party memberships, falling turn-out at elections and rising voter apathy, Labour cannot afford to be top down, distant, electoral machines. Instead, the aim is to become a party that is firmly rooted and deeply embedded in communities across the country, seen outside of election time, as much as in their run-up.

No doubt the Conservative Party is making similar changes to their campaign strategy. But what’s becoming clear is that the most significant influence of the Obama campaigns, on the Labour Party at least, is to personalise our politics.

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