Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Am I Getting Defensive?

So last weekend at my Obama fringe event in Harrogate, one of the speakers was Mark Pack - Head of Innovations for the Liberal Democrats. Being determined to find something that was unlikely to be said by any of us, Mark decided to focus on a list of things Obama got WRONG in his election.

Well, hats off to you Mark, for sheer originality. Even I am beginning to grow weary of the endless recitation of our campaign's manifest perfections.

Still, being the shameless Kool Aid drinker that I am, I couldn't find it within me to entirely agree with all of Mark's criticisms. Here's a quick recap and response:

Alleged Failure No. 1: That the Obama campaign did not involve people in the formation of policy online.

Response: This is absolutely true. They didn't do much of this. However, the complaint contains within it the assumption that this is something a Presidential campaign OUGHT to do - and I'm not sure that assumption is valid. The function of a Presidential campaign is always and only to win an election. If an online policy formation could help us do this, then (as my former President liked to say) bring it on. But I think the judgement was that we specifically didn't want our activists spending their time on this during the eleciton season, we wanted them to hit the ground and get out the vote. It might arguably be a good idea for the DNC to be doing this as part of our ongoing platform process - and I think it very much is something that Organizing for America, the DNC's new grassroots group that grew out of the campaign organisation will do. But Democrats in the US had a pretty fair consensus about the direction we wanted the country to go in. The challenge wasn't finding good policies it was getting into power so that we could implement them (the Liberal Democrats may learn from this what they choose...).

Alleged Failure 2: That the campaign did not successfully respond to the massive numbers of e-mails that they were sent.

Response: I think Mark has a point here, but I'd call this a mixed success rather than an outright failure. Speaking from my personal experience, I found that although I didn't get a personal response to every e-mail I sent, I did get promptly added onto the mailing list as soon as I contacted the campaign. Similarly, I responded several times to feedback requests and surveys where I got an auto-response follow up, which is at least more than others were doing. Still, I think this is definitely one area where future campaigns can do better - the mixed blessing of an overwhelming enthusiasm from supporters is a serious challenge to cope with - DNC General Election Director Paul Tewes called it "drinking from a firehose," which I think conveys some of the sensation of being on the other end of those thousands of e-mails!

Alleged Failure 3: That despite the hype the turnout was not improved by as much as was advertised.

Response: I have to beg to differ with you on that one, Mark. Or at least, to clarify one very important detail that changes the whole landscape: Yes, overall voter participation was only up by only a little more than one percentage point over the already massive 2004 voter participation (although, before I say "only", do you have any idea how hard it is to achieve a 1% increase in nation-wide voter participation? That's millions of people!) but the DEMOCRATIC turnout was up by a little over 2%. Republican turnout, in other words, was depressed compared with 2004. But some will say - why then did Barack Obama only win by 52% of the vote? And this is where it gets depressing - a Democrat has not achieved an outright majority of the US popular vote since Jimmy Carter, and Obama's margin of victory was the biggest Democratic margin of victory since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In other words, Americans for some inexplicable reason don't vote for us very often in large numbers, even though they tend to agree with our policies (surely the Liberal Democrats can relate to that?). I truly think we achieved almost the best achievable level of participation for our voters.

Alleged Failure 4: That the Obama army of small donors was not as large as was advertised.

Response: Mark actually explained the happy cause of this seeming anomoly in his talk, but for those who weren't in the room - the background is that when final financial tallies came in it was discovered that there were a lot more midlevel donors (from $250 to $1,000) than everyone expected and a lot fewer small donors. Simple answer - they were very good at getting additional donations from the initial small donors, turning them into big donors. I started with a $20 donation with no intention to give more. In the end, though, I did wind up giving quite a bit more, although how much more is an Open Secret (that was a hint).

Alleged Failure 5: The campaign did not develop and use new technology, relying instead on perfecting the use of existing technology.

Response: I'd actually dispute this on two levels. Firstly, there was new technology that was developed - Facebook and I-phone applications, clever data mining tools, and lots of others. In fact, one much talked about new application that was developed, called "project Houdini" was aimed at streamlining the Get Out the Vote process by removing voters from the call back lists as soon as they have been identified at the polling places. However, it wasn't a success on election day and wound up being switched off so that it wouldn't take away resources from the more traditional GOTV tools.

Which brings me to my second point. Developing and using new technology was never the goal of this campaign. The goal of this campaign was to win. If the best way to win was by chiseling aramaic letters on clay tablets, that's what we would have done. If new technologies can help, great. But if there's a simpler way to achieve the same outcome, and if it uses technologies that the volunteers and supporters feel comfortable with and can use well, then that's preferable. Technology changes the world by how it's used and that's the kind of innovation that Obama was going for.

Alleged Failure 6: Losing 160,000 friends on MySpace ("the Joe Anthony Incident").

Response: I had to look this one up. Sounds bad. Also seems out of step with the campaign's overall ethos, which was very much to keep hands off whatever anyone else was building for us. Weird.

And finally...

Alleged Failure 7: Did not effectively use Twitter.

Response: Yep, hands up on that one. In my case, I didn't even start using Twitter until after the election, and certainly no one from the campaign was urging me to. I can only speculate that it was a timing thing - Twitter really started to take off towards the end of the campaign, by which point we already had our tools in place and were going full speed ahead for the finish line.


Mark Pack said...

Thanks for saving me having to blog this myself :-) And thanks for your own great contribution to the meeting.

I'd pretty much agree with most of your comments.

I'm not convinced on the technology one though as I don't think the iPhone app, for example, was the sort of major step forward that we've seen in previous election cycles.

Supporters writing their own software was probably a Dean '04 innovation (Coders for Dean), though perhaps that was more helping a central software plan whilst the iPhone app was more grassroots driven and so was different? As I said, I'm not convinced, but it will be interesting to see whether that does turn out to be the case.

Obama London said...

Hey Mark! You may be right that the tools developed weren't the most innovative thing imaginable. But I guess the point that I was trying to get at is that innovation for it's own sake wasn't our intent. But this is an old age techie versus user argument - innovators like yourself are biased towards comign up with new stuff. Which is good, because someone should. But folks like me who were on the ground just wanted whatever tool we needed to make stuff work. And sometimes even a really powerful piece of technology can be an obstruction rather than a help - because any time the users need to spend learning new ways to do things they already know how to do is time lost. Good old fashioned mobile phones were often our most powerful technology, because everyone knew how to use them and were happy to do so.

Tony Lloyd said...

The biggest mistake was not accepting my offer of a beer when Obama visited the UK!

Three reasons:
1. It's the chance of a pint
2. I bet I know more about which pubs do the best pints than Gordon
3. Those "Obama is a muslim" rumours would have disappeared after a pint and a packet of pork scratchings with me.

I emailed the offer and have ended up on some mailing list. I still get mails from Baz (I've decided the number of emails entitles me to familiarity) even though they are clearly aimed at US citizens.

The offer of a beer, naturally, still stands.