From Obama to Canada? 7 Lessons from the U.S. Presidential Election for Canadian Campaigns

March 13, 2013

By now, the dust has settled on much of the analysis of 2012 US election. Yet, with seven provincial and many municipal elections coming up over the next two years in Canada, much of what was learned in the last US election cycle could be put to use closer to home.  I followed the campaign and the various post-mortems, and I attended the International Association of Political Consultants (IAPC) meeting a few days after the US campaign, where I heard and spoke with Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina and pollster Joel Benenson.

 With this, here is my take on some key lessons that can be applied in a Canadian context. The US election left its mark on many of us and inspired us to want to try new things in the field of campaigning, but we need to be careful how we borrow the tactics and techniques used, as one election does not fit all.  Here a few things we could keep in mind:

1.  You’re Not Obama  After the 2008 presidential election, I saw more than one campaign try to replicate major elements of the Obama strategy, particularly in smaller and different types of campaigns, which made little sense in our Canadian context. These included an excessive  devotion of resources to online fundraising (this isn’t a bad thing, you just don’t want to over-rely on it) and strategies heavily dependent on large number of volunteers when there was no good reason to think the declining trend in volunteer participation was going to be reversed. Much of what Obama did was dependent on the scale of the campaign resources available and the national media profile that went with it. So, if you don’t have a billion dollars, daily national media coverage or throngs of volunteers banging down your door asking to join up, proceed with some caution.

 2.  Measure, Measure, Measure  Whether your campaign is large or small, you can measure what you’re doing and adapt accordingly. The Obama campaign had 100 people in their analytics department measuring everything. They worked independently from those leading the campaign areas, and measured voter contact, polling, fundraising, and other areas. Sometimes they used sophisticated analytical techniques, and sometimes very basic ones.  The point is that Jim Messina decided early on that measurement was going to be a cornerstone of the campaign, and it was certainly one of the reasons they won. The Obama campaign’s own polling was deadly accurate (cross checking multiple ways as they went along), as was their individual targeting. This allowed them to deploy their resources exactly where they were needed. 

 You don’t need to have an analytics department to recognize the basic principles. As they say in business, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” If you are in a campaign where the reports are vaguely qualitative along the lines of,  “This or that activity went pretty well”, instead of having a series of numbers in a spreadsheet or graph, you can start improving your campaign right there, even if your “analytics department” has only one person in it. Alternatively, make those with front line responsibilities give you hard numbers and comparisons regularly, and recommendations on what actions can be taken as a result.

 3.  The Ground Game is a Game Changer   Sure, the Obama and Romney campaign spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, especially in the later stages of the campaign, however there was little evidence that it moved many votes.  At IAPC, Jim Messina said that in October the campaigns, they were spending 12,000 gross rating points (GRPs) per week on advertising, which is a huge amount, many times more than would be considered a saturation buy. In his opinion, these ads “made no difference”. However, where the campaign was won he said, and many agree, was on the ground.  Obama’s ability to reach key swing voters in swing states was vital to their victory. There remains a myth in politics that if you put up an ad you move votes. Sometimes you do, sometimes (even often) you don’t, but in many campaign scenarios there more votes to be won, or turned out, with direct voter contact efforts.

For Obama, some of the ground game was significantly “back to the future”, i.e., personal one-on-one contact. Personal contact is still the most effective way of talking to voters, but it’s expensive either with volunteer or paid resources. If going this route, you want to make sure you are talking to the right people, targeted most effectively. Often this can be done through micro-targeting, or other means of targeting, in order to minimize wasted resources by talking to the wrong people or not reaching people at all. 

 4. Mistakes Matter Most  While there was no discernible effect of ads moving numbers most of the time, big media stories did have an obvious effect, and those media stories almost always revolved around mistakes.  Romney’s poor convention performance, the leak of his 47% statement, his gaffs in Europe, his veering to the right in the primary process, and Obama’ poor first debate performance to mention some, all had a measurable effect on public support for the candidates, as seen through polling numbers.  It’s easy to say “don’t make mistakes”, and of course they do happen, which is why recovering well is important. This is something that many candidates (including Romney in this campaign) didn’t do well and an area most campaigns could improve on.  But It is important to spend the appropriate time reviewing potential pitfalls (hello, Christy Clark) in order to avoid them, because the unfortunate truth is that in politics, doing something wrong is many times more influential than doing something right. So weigh your resources accordingly.

 5. Social Media  One thing social media is great for is creating spin, including creating the spin on how effective social media is. We’ll have to await further analysis to find out what emerging technologies produced the most effect on outcomes.  A number of things are clear though, while social media continues to grow as an effective tool in political campaigns, it’s changing very rapidly, even within its own rapidly changing context. In the 2008 campaign, Obama sent out one tweet – for the whole campaign. In the most recent campaign, he sent as many as 28 per day, sometimes with a million actions taken by followers.  In the 2008 campaign, viral videos were everywhere, from “Obama Girl” to Will.I.Am’s   “Yes We Can” video.  In the 2012 campaign, almost no internet meme hit that same level of reach. That space either became more crowded, or less interesting. This rapid pace of change will only increase in social media as yesterday’s lessons, let alone last year’s, become out of date. You have to be on the trends, in real time in order to play effectively here.  

 6. Negative Doesn’t Always Work   There’s a myth about the universal success of negative campaigning, which I’ve written about before, but here is another example.  Both Romney and Obama ran negative ads. The Romney campaign found through research that significant aspects of their negative message were not working. They discovered that while voters might have been disappointed in aspects of the Obama agenda, they still liked him.  As such, character attacks on him were counterproductive.  What voters wanted to know about was who was this alternative choice to Obama, not just what was wrong with Obama. This is very common in such weakened incumbent versus challenger races, where the challenger makes it all about the incumbent’s record (and not them) and the incumbent tries to makes it all about the choice between the two.  However, even if the challenger successfully attacks the record of the incumbent (for example, the Wild Rose party in the recent Alberta election), ultimately voters still have to decide whether the alternative is acceptable in his or her own right. The fact is that Romney’s veer to the right with his nomination campaign, and his selection of an even more right-winger as his running mate, led to his lack of a credible, positive program that would motivate disappointed Obama voters to make the switch. This was one thing he clearly needed, much more than further piling on the Obama record.

 7.  Turnout Modeling   A key to polling in the presidential campaign, but also in many elections, is turnout modeling. Turnout modeling allows you to refine your polling predictions based on who you actually think will turn out to vote, rather than the population at large.  This is of growing importance as turnout out numbers decline. If only 50% of the voters in a given election are going to vote, you’ve got to know who that 50% is.  For whatever reason, this is not commonplace in Canadian politics. Canadian media pollsters seldom apply a turnout model, with some exceptions in Quebec, where “ballot box boosts” compared to polling numbers have been widely observed. Many pollsters use a very basic, likely-to-vote screen based on a voter’s declared intention of voting or not, which can be very misleading, given most people’s propensity to over-report turn out.  Much more sophisticated techniques are needed to really understand voter turnout. We’re never going to have an analytics team of 100 to determine that, but campaigns that dedicate resources to turnout modeling will be campaigns that do better.  Just ask Jim Messina. 


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