iOS app Android app More

Andrew Gumbel

Andrew Gumbel

Posted: February 2, 2008 05:11 PM

Obama Rewriting Rules of Conventional Campaigning


Los Angeles, California -Barack Obama is striving to rewrite the rules of tradtional campaigning by sharply escalating the value of canvassing and field operations. And if Obama comes close or even surpasses Hillary Clinton's vote totals in California and the other big Super Tuesday states, it won't just keep him in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. It will overturn conventional wisdom, shared by both major parties, on how to run a successful political campaign.

"I've never seen anything like this," said political historian Raphael Sonenshein of California State University at Fullerton, "and I've been following presidential politics since I was a baby."

Obama's grassroots campaigning model, depending heavily on a pumped-up army of passionate volunteer field workers using the Internet both to connect and to organize, has been adopted before -- notably, in the recent past, by Howard Dean during the 2004 campaign -- but has never paid real dividends, certainly not in a presidential nominating race.

Conventional wisdom has it that even the most energetic field operation can't net a candidate more than one or two percentage points. Conventional wisdom suggests, too, that the only really meaningful way to campaign in a state as vast and varied as California is to rally the party establishment, as Senator Clinton has done, gun for as many endorsements as possible from public figures and unions, raise money like there's no tomorrow and bombard the airwaves with paid advertising.

The Obama campaign has gone a long way down that same route, particularly on fund-raising, but in a state where the opinion polls placed the Illinois Senator as much as 17 points behind just one week ago, it is also reaching much further.

Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles City Council President who is also a co-chair of Obama's California campaign, says he's hoping for a four-six point boost from field operations. Thanks to the data-crunching capacities of modern computers, the volunteer army is being deployed very precisely in the precincts and congressional districts where personal contact is likely to make the biggest difference in the ultimate delegate count.

It is heavily targeting the youth vote, and new voters more generally in a primary season that has already seen turnout jump anywhere from 30 per cent (in New Hampshire) to double or even more than that. Personal outreach and precinct targeting were the key to the campaign's victory in Iowa -- a much more manageably sized state -- and they are central to the way it is fighting California.

Its nine campaign offices, many of them staffed entirely by volunteers, have made more than a million personal phone calls and hope to have made more than two million by election day. This weekend, volunteers teamed up all over the state under the direction of more than 2000 precinct captains -- in a state with about 20,000 precincts in all.

Essentially, the Obama people are waging the battle as though the Golden State were holding 53 separate caucuses, one for each congressional district. "What they are doing is concentrating on the delegate hunt," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe of the University of Southern California's School of Planning, Policy and Development. "Sure, it has a chance of succeeding, particularly in rural areas. It worked in Nevada and Iowa. It's not so much a new model as grabbing the caucus model and grafting it on to not only a primary state, but the biggest primary state there is."

It will be relatively easy to judge whether the field operation has been a failure -- essentially, anything that leaves him 10 percentage points or more behind Clinton -- but much harder to tell if it is a success. Obama has been buoyed by so many factors in the past few days -- his victory in South Carolina, the Ted Kennedy endorsement, the support of the SEIU union in California and the backing of both the Los Angeles Times, the state's largest newspaper, and La Opinion, its most widely read Spanish-language publication -- it may be hard to figure out, in the end, which factor contributed to what.

Already, though, Obama has subverted expectations by being a contender in California at all. Just a few days ago, the Democratic Party consultant and Clinton loyalist Chris Lehane was boasting to the San Francisco Chronicle that California was "Clinton country" thanks to the enduringly fond memories of Bill's presidency and would surely stay that way. "You don't tug on Superman's cape," he said, "and you don't mess around with a popular Democratic president whose poll numbers are in the stratosphere among Democratic grassroots voters."

That's the sort of establishment hubris that Howard Dean's campaign was hoping to challenge four years ago -- but never got the chance because of key strategic mistakes in Iowa (essentially, relying too much on out-of-state volunteers and not enough on locals) and the subsequent implosion of his candidacy. Rick Jacobs, who chaired Dean's California campaign and has waged numerous battles against party orthodoxy since, sees the Obama effort as something of a personal vindication. "A lot of people are tired of being told how to vote by the consultant class," he said.

For Jacobs, Obama is "Dean on steroids" -- because of the stratospheric quantity of money he has raised, his ability to reach out well beyond the Democratic Party faithful, and because of the advances in computer technology and the explosion of Internet networking sites like Facebook, which did not exist in 2003-4.

The Obama campaign, like Dean's, believes that delegating responsibility to volunteers empowers and inspires the entire effort and helps spread both enthusiasm and voter support. As one volunteer, Lauren Zimmer, told me: "Hillary Clinton says she gets up in the morning and asks, 'how can I help people?', whereas Obama is all about asking, 'what can we do?'... He's asked us to take ownership of the campaign."

Political historians will point out that this approach is not all that new, even if the computer technology that goes with it is. For Sonenshein , it goes back at least as far as Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and encompasses the campaigns of Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley as well as Dean. "These are campaigns that always come from a reformist perspective," Sonenshein said. "The reason they fail is that they are totally bloodless and too intellectual, appealing to upscale Democratic voters -- usually white, usually well educated -- who believe the system should be turned upside down."

What makes Obama new and exciting, Sonenshein said, is that he is taking a model that has done nothing but fail in the past and giving it a real chance of success. Several things make Obama stand out -- his color, which gives him instant appeal beyond the white, college-educated crowd, his remarkable rhetorical gifts and his ability to raise unprecedented quantities of money.

Sonenshein cautioned that he still suffers from the limitations of the reformist model -- notably a lack of "lunch-pail appeal" to white working-class voters and Latinos, who have, up to now, felt more comfortable voting for Clinton or Edwards.

California is arguably the most intriguing testing-ground for the Obama model, not only because of its size and importance but also because it hasn't had a chance to count in the primary process for the past 40 years. In other words, there are no precedents for knowing what might happen.