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Growing the grassroots
IT WOULD look like the trading floor of a bank, were it not for the casual clothes and dorm-room atmosphere. The cavernous open-plan headquarters of Barack Obama’s re-election campaign houses over 300 workers seated in serried rows, jabbering into phones and tapping purposefully at computer keyboards. Haphazard decorations—a Justin Bieber poster, a team flag for the Montana Grizzlies, a picture of a beaming staffer with the president himself—mark out each worker’s territory. Half-eaten muffins, crumpled sandwich wrappers and small cairns of orange peel speak of deskbound dedication. A ping-pong table sits unused in a corner; the various televisions tuned to news networks have been muted.
One corner of this football field of desks is given over to “regional pods”, which oversee the campaign in different parts of the country. Nearby sit teams that focus on particular slices of the electorate, including the young, the old, women, religious groups, racial minorities and gay voters. The IT department occupies a whole bank of desks, as does the one charged with drumming up support via Facebook, Twitter and the like. There is a training division, a scheduling unit, a travel desk and an in-house printing shop. There are media monitors, spokesmen, speechwriters, video editors and graphic designers, not to mention fund-raising co-ordinators, accountants, lawyers and a knot of workers devoted solely to typing up the various reports and disclosures required by the Federal Election Commission. Plenty of empty desk-space remains, in anticipation of further hiring before November.
Let this hive of electioneering is only the most visible manifestation of a campaign that has been gathering steam for over a year now, as a spokesman explains. Obama 2012 has over 100 offices spread across nearly every state (they seem particularly proud of their outpost in fiercely Republican Wyoming). In Florida, a perennial swing state, it has 18. Some 700 staffers and thousands of volunteers are already at work for the campaign. Fully 12,000 people applied for the 1,200 internships the campaign offered this spring.
The campaign had already spent $75m by the end of February. That is only a little bit more than the presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, at $67m. But Mr Obama has used his money quite differently. Whereas Mr Romney has spent $14m on television and radio advertising, Mr Obama has devoted only $3m to that. Instead, he has spent $12m on online advertising, to Mr Romney’s $1m, and $15m on staff, to Mr Romney’s $5m. Mr Romney’s headquarters, in a drab low-rise building in Boston, is a fraction the size of Mr Obama’s. In many states, Mr Romney has no formal presence, having closed his offices after the local primary, or never having opened any in the first place.
In part, these differences are a reflection of the two candidate’s circumstances. Mr Romney is only just beginning his general-election campaign, after his main rival for the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum, conceded defeat this week (see article). To prevail in the primaries, Mr Romney had to blitz the airwaves at great expense, while Mr Obama, as the unopposed Democratic nominee, has been able to hold his fire. That has left Mr Romney with relatively little cash ($7m at the end of February, in contrast to Mr Obama’s $85m). Anyway, it would have made little sense for Mr Romney to build a big national network until he had clinched the nomination. Now that he has all but done so, his campaign will presumably begin to hire more staff and open more offices.
But the divergence in spending patterns is also an indication of the Obama campaign’s strategy. Jim Messina, the campaign manager, is determined to contest as many states as possible, to avoid the trap he believes past Democratic campaigns fell into of pinning all their hopes on just one or two fiercely contested and fickle swing states. For decades the Democrats have had enough solid support in the north-east, the west coast and parts of the industrial Midwest to put them within striking distance of a majority in the electoral college. But whereas Al Gore’s prospects hinged on an ultimately elusive victory in Florida, and John Kerry’s on an equally elusive win in Ohio, Mr Obama in 2008 made inroads into previously Republican territory in the South, the Rockies and the Midwest, bringing him victory by a comfortable margin.
Each of the regions where Mr Obama made headway before, along with Florida, provides him with a potential “pathway to victory” this time round, in Mr Messina’s view, assuming he can hold on to the Democratic heartland. Mr Messina even hopes to expand the battlefield by targeting Arizona, a solidly Republican state in 2008, when one of its senators, John McCain, was the party’s nominee. That ambition rests on the assumption that Mr Obama will be able to preserve the coalition of women, minorities and young voters that propelled him to victory last time, and perhaps even make up some ground among poorer white voters, who seem almost as dubious about Mr Romney as they are about him. Such an expansive approach, naturally, entails opening more offices and hiring more staff than a more narrowly focused campaign would.
Mr Obama’s campaign team also wants to emulate his success in 2008 in another way, by creating a huge network of volunteers, recruited and co-ordinated in large part online, to proselytise on his behalf. There is much talk of “building the biggest grassroots campaign in history”. So Mr Obama’s footsoldiers are trying to contact as many potential supporters as possible in person, either online or through carefully orchestrated door-knocking drives and telephone banks. That, in turn, has racked up big bills for internet advertising and office overheads.
This approach has multiple virtues. Voters are more likely to respond to a friend’s political urgings than to a television advertisement or a flyer, according to Mr Obama’s strategists. Direct contact with a large pool of potential voters allows Mr Obama to present his own pitch, unfiltered by the media, and the campaign’s technical wizardry will ensure that it is tailored to the recipient. That should be especially valuable this time, since the media is less enamoured of the president than it once was, and since changes in election laws have made it much easier for pressure groups to spend vast sums to influence the election. Personalised e-mails, phone calls and appeals from friends or neighbours, the theory runs, should help counter the flood of negative advertising. Even better, such an approach dovetails neatly with efforts to register new voters. The campaign sees lots of potential to add young people and Hispanics, in particular, to the rolls in swing states—and has already started.
So at Obama HQ, the biggest share of the staff concentrates on getting voters to sign up at one of the campaign’s many websites (one for each state, plus sites for women, veterans, Asians, Jews, nurses and so on), or to befriend the campaign through Facebook, or to click on an online ad focusing on his or her likely concerns. Customised appeals to donate, canvass, host a house party or organise a registration drive follow. The information gleaned from supporters’ online habits or from canvassers’ visits and calls is fed back into the campaign’s database, to hone its sales pitch even more.
To keep flightier visitors interested, the campaign uses gimmicky branded goods—from Obama 2012 nail polish to dog bowls—and competitions among donors to have a meal with Mr and Mrs Obama. It dragoons the mandatory rock stars (the Red Hot Chili Peppers are giving a concert for Obama volunteers in Ohio this week) and actors (Kal Penn, best known for portraying a carefree pothead, is a staple) to appeal to the less politically engaged. It generates a constant stream of videos of such events, or of volunteers’ inspirational stories, all produced in-house with their own footage, not to mention endless e-mails, Tweets and updates.
Such tactics are a standard feature of modern ballotcraft—but the Obama campaign takes them to extremes. Katie Hogan, a spokesman, describes the many man-hours it devoted to ensuring that its websites always fit perfectly onto surfers’ screens, no matter what device they are using. She also proudly recounts how quickly a flattering chart about job creation that the campaign disseminated online found its way to the inboxes and Facebook walls of apolitical relatives.
In some respects, the effort appears to be paying off. The campaign says it has held nearly 30,000 events around the country in the past year, the vast majority of them small, local affairs. It has received donations from 500,000 more people than it had at this stage of the race in 2008, and 55% of donors had never given to Mr Obama before.
But the Obama campaign itself concedes that fertilising the grassroots is expensive. Repeated online solicitations for small donations are a relatively inefficient way of raising money. As Karl Rove, a Republican strategist, points out, only a small proportion of those who gave to Mr Obama in 2008 have done so again this time. And Mr Obama’s re-election effort is spending more of its funds earlier in the campaign than George Bush did in 2004.
Mr Messina feels sure that the campaign will not run short of funds. Whether his finely crafted electoral machine can overcome Americans’ ambivalence about their president and withstand the advertising bludgeoning Mr Obama is about to receive is another question.