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How We Win

Posted: 11/15/2012 3:51 pm

Karl Rove notwithstanding, we can all agree Barack Obama won last week's election. Since then we've watched with amusement as conservative pundits have struggled to minimize the significance of election results that did not match their predictions. In the desperate rush to assign blame anywhere else, they've missed the fact that this election gives conservatives at least one real reason to celebrate.

Barack Obama's campaign validates one of the core principles of today's Republican party: Obama proved that with good information and proper support, small local teams can sometimes do better than large, distant organizations.

While "super PACs" like Restore our Future and American Crossroads spent a quarter of a billion dollars to carpet-bomb the country with advertisements amplifying the top-down messages coming from the Romney campaign, the Obama team built a dynamic online platform to collect information from and provide support to hundreds of thousands of ground-level volunteers and supporters across the United States.

This distinction should not go unnoticed.

We are not political operatives, but we each focus on helping warring parties find common ground and unseen opportunities for agreement. One of us is a deal strategist for high-profile clients like Oprah Winfrey and the X-Factor, and the other is a law professor specializing in language, decision-making and negotiation. With 30 years' combined experience, we help our students and our clients find ways to agree and to move forward productively.

When influential Republicans acknowledge that in 2012 their candidate relied on (ultimately ineffective) top-down methods which they would more likely attribute to the other guy, it may be easier to recognize that neither side has a monopoly on the best strategies for campaigning, governing, or management.

Textbook Republican Party ideology argues that smaller businesses, voluntary associations, and nimble, bottom-up teams are preferable to large, bureaucratic organizations. Most Republicans believe that in smaller units resources can be distributed more creatively, interpersonal connections can be established more securely, and personal accountability ensures that work happens more efficiently.

In many cases, they're right.

They are also highlighting a primary difference between the two campaigns.

Obama's "snowflake" campaign structure provided maximum flexibility to small teams of familiar volunteers. Individuals were assigned responsibility for pieces of larger group tasks, and were given access to detailed analytic tools to measure their effectiveness. More than ever, volunteers had easy access to data about the doors they'd knocked on, the calls they'd made, the money they raised, and the work they'd already completed on behalf of the campaign.

Although Obama's small, empowered teams were ideologically compatible with the Republicans' smaller is better ideology, they didn't succeed in a vacuum. The Obama campaign was designed so that local teams benefited from shared planning, aggregated information, and a common sense of mission.

Local leaders had access to information for each of their team leaders, while field organizers had access to data on each of the leaders in their regions. All of this information was available to campaign HQ. Because the Obama campaign was built from the ground up to identify trends in data and in volunteers' experience on the ground, the campaign was able to take advantage of trends and best practices, while simultaneously empowering local volunteers to experiment with creative ways to achieve their goals.

In 2012, Democrats took the best of what we knew about technology and data analysis and used it to do something old-fashioned -- door-to-door campaigning. In contrast to Karl Rove's $300 million super PAC bullhorn, the Obama campaign built tools to listen to their audience, to amplify their voices, and to encourage them in their individual efforts on behalf of the campaign.

They did this because we don't want people to tell us what to believe, or burn piles of money trying to convince us to change our firmly held beliefs. What we actually want -- and what the Obama campaign understood -- is to be heard, to share our beliefs, and to demonstrate that we have something to contribute.

Large top-down institutions occupy a necessary and important role in our society. The outrage over Mitt Romney's desire to de-federalize FEMA shows that there are some areas where many of us agree that we need a strong governmental response. Nonetheless, we know large institutions aren't always the only answer. We saw this when the Obama campaign's nimble grassroots structure defeated Romney's top-down effort. We are seeing it now in the Occupy movement's passionate and effective humanitarian response to Hurricane Sandy.

Small groups of motivated and organized Americans can move mountains.

Taking a page from the Republican playbook, Democrats just re-elected the president with a "smaller is better" organizational model. Their campaign was well-served by empowered individuals using the best information available to them to take action in their communities. We will always have room for disagreement, but perhaps conservative pundits can move forward by acknowledging that both sides have something to offer in addressing the very real challenges in front of us. There are no "poopy-heads" here.

Republicans ought to understand that while this election was a repudiation of their candidate, it is also a strong validation of some of the techniques and practices they profess to revere.

 
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