Barack Obama did not win the presidency of the United States—his volunteers did. This election was decided by ordinary Americans working to achieve something extraordinary. President Obama began his career in much the same way, going door to door as a local community organizer in Illinois, and his winning campaign strategy reflects this deep appreciation for the average neighborhood supporter. By combining a sophisticated campaign infrastructure with the passion and personal connection that lies at the heart of community organizing, he was able to successfully mobilize his base where it mattered most, and in the process he has forever changed how presidential candidates will engage with voters.
In 2009, President Obama established Organizing for America (OFA), the campaign’s grassroots wing, which focused on enabling unprecedented communication between national headquarters, state headquarters, and local offices. Although its structure was strictly hierarchical, the campaign encouraged community organizers to tune in to regular discussions with other organizers and state leaders. This exchange of information proved invaluable in swing states. OFA volunteers and interns would frequently inform their office of the best places they had discovered to register voters, call neighbors to get an understanding of the issues that mattered to them, and develop fluid plans of action that allowed them to respond instantly to changing circumstances on the ground.
To be sure, Mitt Romney’s campaign certainly had this dynamism, at least to a certain extent. However, it lacked President Obama’s internally transparent campaign infrastructure, which provided far more consistent talking points and more targeted funding than Romney could muster. Considering the fact that with each and every gaffe and flip-flop, the Romney campaign had one more irregularity to iron out in potential voters’ minds. Moreover, Obama’s popularity over “new media”, including social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, ensured a steady stream of rhetorically positive support, while Romney could hardly organize his own opinions, let alone the volunteers who struggled to sell them to the electorate.
Despite its long chains of e-mails begging for donations, the Obama campaign significantly outperformed its opposition in terms of funding. Governor Romney enjoyed the backing of well-funded Super PACs, but his campaign only matched about 60% of Obama’s fundraising, which translated into fewer advertisements, a reliance on independent conservative organizations’ sponsorship, and—worst of all—an abysmally low number of local offices, especially in key swing states. Across the entire United States, Obama outpaced his opponent with 755 such offices compared to Romney’s 283. In Florida, the local headquarters count was 102 to 48, while the ratio was 122 to 40 in Ohio. This stark advantage allowed the President to place field offices in more counties and organize a greater base of support in pivotal states—and the advantage is more than numerical. Many objectives reports of Romney campaign offices have consistently cited minimal communication and a lack of national as opposed to distracting local focus. But what made the Obama campaign substantially more committed and focused than Romney’s?
President Obama’s most effective tool in building this infrastructure from the ground up was his enduring commitment to an ideology that easily appeals to moderate voters. For instance, whereas Romney followed his Republican allies in affirming that less government is better government, Obama argues that government is not always the answer, but it is sometimes an answer. As he continued to frame the election as a choice between two competing visions for the future of the United States, Obama’s more nuanced vision became increasingly competitive against Romney’s. With its vast mobilized base deployed in swing states, the Obama campaign could explain the nuance and persuade centrist voters en masse.
The Republican Party would do well to start taking notes on President Obama’s strategy. Over the next four years, it will no doubt redefine itself either as a more entrenched bastion of conservatism or as a more back-to-basics party that can possibly appeal to minority groups that currently lie far outside of its reach. Nevertheless, no matter what sort of party it decides it wants to be, the GOP’s number one priority must be to learn from the Democrats’ successful campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Most important of all the lessons that Organizing for America offers is that Republicans may be able to promulgate a vision for Americans, but it ought to be a positive one. Campaigns can no longer adequately defend a vision of “American’t”.
The 2012 election has secured an opportunity for Democrats to push forward their agenda. In the meantime, President Obama now governs an electorate that is more strongly divided than ever. This is a crisis of partisanship that the United States will almost certainly face for several more election cycles to come. Inevitably, however, the Obama campaign has signaled that elections, and even politics on the whole, can no longer be conducted entirely from the top-down. America does not need the leadership of a manager or a CEO or a general so much as it needs more boots on the ground—more people committed to improving their vision for the country’s future and actively working to realize it, even if they disagree about what steps to take on the path forward.