Eighteen months ago I submitted my CV to the ‘Hillary for America’ campaign. I had always been a fan of Hillary; she was cool under pressure, values driven and actually got things done in an industry that makes it very difficult to affect lasting change. It would be a once in a lifetime chance to be part of the campaign that broke through the final glass ceiling and after eight years in UK politics I wanted to experience a ‘bigger and better’ US campaign. We all know that it didn’t go to plan but the journey was interesting and instructive nonetheless.
Live Free or Die
I arrived at the Nashua region campaign headquarters in New Hampshire in late August. New Hampshire is a landmark on the US political map. Not because of its size, at just 24,000 Km2 with 1.4m people, it is one of the smallest states. It is a big political deal because it holds the first presidential primaries and it is a ‘swing state’ – one of the handful in the US that both parties’ candidates can genuinely contest in a Presidential election year. It has more voters registered as independent (per capita) than any other and is fiercely proud of its state motto ‘Live Free or Die’.
New Hampshire (NH) was even more significant in 2016 because the senate race was a top Democrat target to unseat the incumbent. Clinton won NH by 3,000 votes and the Democrat Senate candidate by just 600 votes. Therefore, my observations on the differences between US and UK general election campaigns are drawn from a state where the plan worked rather than other swing states where the model came up short.
Thanks to Obama’s background in community organising, his 2008 campaign pioneered the snowflake model to mobilise voters. The basic premise is that a small number of paid campaign staff called ‘Field Organisers’ find activists in a community, empower them to be team leaders and they in turn recruit their own team of volunteers. This network of local people are best placed to have conversations with local voters because they will be more trusted than campaign staff from out-of-state. The hope is that once the campaign rolls out of town the infrastructure and skills remain in the community to maintain a level of activism on issues that matter to them. This model was phenomenally successful in Obama’s re-election and was wholeheartedly adopted by Hillary Clinton. In Nashua, the same team leaders that had organised for Obama activated the same teams in 2016.
Money, money, money
I arrived in the HQ as the seventh member of staff in the campaign region covering Nashua and surrounding towns. Within weeks that number doubled because as the money comes in to US elections in the closing stages, the infrastructure expands exponentially. There were nine campaign regions in NH and they all experienced the a similar proportional increase in staff in the last three months. The capacity of the campaign to scale up like this across the US was extremely impressive.
To the uninitiated political campaigns look like a lot of speeches, TV appearances and televised debates. If you are playing close attention you may notice a few more leaflets among the pizza delivery menus under your door. But to those in the know it is canvassing and making phone calls. Each field organiser had to make at least 150 calls a day, every day of the campaign and schedule volunteers to help in the ground game. That’s 1,050 calls a week or 10,000 calls for the time I was in New Hampshire. Increasing the number of staff that can make these ‘direct voter contacts’ happen is critical according to the accepted US campaign wisdom. One canvassing volunteer ‘shift’ meant 40 doors knocked – if we had 200 volunteers we could get to 8,000 doors on a typical Saturday.
It was the huge capacity of the Clinton campaign to reach high numbers of voters that had respected analysts like FiveThirtyEight betting on the victory – they thought Clinton could get the vote out more effectively than Trump. And she did – 2.86m more votes than Trump at the last count. Sadly, not in the states that mattered.
This is just the impact of the enormous budgets on the ground war. It is hard to imagine how inescapable the ad campaigns are in a swing state like New Hampshire. Every ad break of every popular show 24/7 in the final weeks features political ads. They are repetitive, negative and made by candidates, interest groups and candidates supporters. US campaigns definitely subscribe to the accepted wisdom that you need to hear something seven times for it to sink in.
Although the ground war and air war, in logistical terms, were separate they fitted together seamlessly. Big moments in the air war were used to bring key volunteers together and reward their support while using them to generate engagement on social media. For example, Joe Biden appeared at a rally in NH around a month before the election. About 4 days before the event regions close by can share a list of their most prized volunteers to be rewarded by the best seats, early entry to the event and much sort after selfies with the surrogate. As soon as the date and location are confirmed the required number of calls for Field Organisers increased to 200-300 a day to invite voters to the event and ensure a healthy crowd. It is used as means to flip voters into supporters and activists by bringing them into the campaign’s orbit; hoping they will be influenced by the atmosphere and speech from the VP.
A campaign photographer will take pictures of the volunteers staffing the event and they appear in targeted social media posts to encourage others to do the same. Joe’s speech is carefully scripted to feature both NH relevant lines for the local evening bulletins and nationally relevant soundbites to respond to whatever tweet Trump had posted that day. The edited showreel is up on Facebook within hours. The set piece events were not policy launches or genuine Q&As, they were rallies designed to energise voters and volunteers and create a sense of momentum.
It’s the data, stupid
The entire nationwide campaign ran off software called VoteBuilder or VAN to its friends. It is a purpose built CRM for voters and volunteers initially populated with registered voters’ data and augmented over time with data collected from canvassing and phone calls. Through this software the analysts and strategists in Brooklyn HQ could monitor every voter contact across the country.
Every campaign moment was used to capture data. Take the Hillary Clinton rally in Manchester, NH in the last fortnight of the campaign; over 4,000 people were ‘checked in’ on the software via volunteers’ and staff mobiles as they waited in line. We captured emails, names, phone numbers and zip codes to be used to target them via social, more phone calls and emails.
Potential or actual volunteers were also stratified to guide and gauge the health of the ground organisation. One tool used to do this was ‘Commitment to Vote’ Cards or CTVs. At each campaign or community event staff encouraged supporters to sign a CTV (in addition to collecting contact details); the individuals who signed them have a much higher propensity to volunteer so targeted more intensely. As the organisation grew, volunteers were categorised by the amount of ‘shifts’ they completed; two shifts in the previous six weeks qualified someone as an ‘active volunteer’, two shifts in the previous two weeks and they were a ‘super volunteer’. There were challenging goals for each organiser to recruit and maintain active and super volunteers.
All data had to be entered before 10pm on the day collected so it could be analysed overnight and new priorities issued for the next day. Via this system Field Organisers could pull their own phone lists to recruit volunteers or would have mandated phone lists sent by the State or Brooklyn HQ. During the final weeks the calls lists became more prescriptive and discretion was extremely limited. The system was also used for bulk surveying, emails and seeking donations. If a voter attended a Michelle Obama event they would receive an email from the First Lady and see videos of the event on their social media feed and so on.
The innocence (and energy) of youth
It is impressive that US campaigns go from a handful of staff to the size of a multinational company within months. From this side of the Atlantic, drunk on the romanticism of the West Wing, we can be forgiven for thinking that US elections are staffed by masterful tacticians with decades of experience. In fact, campaigns are built on twenty-somethings with little or no experience but endless energy, idealism and determination.
Three recent graduates arrived in Nashua in June, got an empty rented retail unit, maps, ‘burner’ cell phones and were told to start meeting people in the community to organise them. They had some basic training, conference calls with managers and documents stored online as their administrative tool of choice. By the time I arrived late August there was a credible campaign running in the Nashua region. They were creative and resourceful because they had to be and knew no better.
So if everyone is so young and inexperienced how does it all come together to be such well-coordinated nation-wide organisation that mobilised 1 million volunteers on the last weekend of the campaign? The answer is a rigid command and control structure enforced with targets and relentless pressure. I was surprised that, in a swing state, almost all management positions below state director were filled by people under 30 and many Regional Directors’ relevant experience was being a Field Organiser for Obama in 2012.
It is hardly surprising that only twenty-somethings are willing to relocate for several months to live with strangers and work 60-80 hours a week for $2,700 as a Field Organiser. Their inexperience and that of their managers undoubtedly made their roles more stressful. However, the flip side of this was their lack of reliance on office comforts and structure that more experienced professionals would struggle without. They weren’t concerned with status of job descriptions, they just wanted to win so there was no posturing or manoeuvring.
Tweeting to victory
Having said all that, Donald Trump’s campaign didn’t follow the same model. The model was so successful for Obama in 2008 and 2012 the Republicans adopted it wholeheartedly in 2013/14 under Reince Priebus’ Chairmanship. The GOP did organise in communities last year but Trump’s fundraising did not turbo charge it the way Clinton did. Using Twitter, Trump communicated directly with voters, leapfrogging any intermediaries and the media had no choice but to amplify his message.
It is important to remember that Trump’s approach, although devastatingly successful, did not mobilise voters on the same scale as Clinton’s. It is the ultimate dichotomy in many political systems that being the most popular does not make you a winner; Clinton’s ground campaign won the popular vote but Trump’s populist, direct line to voters won him the White House.
What can UK campaigns learn from the US?
I left the US very grateful for our rules on political broadcasts and advertising, party funding and short campaigns. Our system is not perfect but the influence of big money and constant campaigning means special interests are far too powerful in US politics.
As a politically interested person, I am jealous of the level of community activism in the US which means the election campaigns are much better supported in relative terms than in the UK. It is unlikely we could emulate the snowflake model in the UK because there is no cultural history of activism. UK voter mobilisation is led by a party’s local councillors or office holders and a hard core of volunteers. They are integrated in the local community and are given far more discretion to guide their own local campaign based on relevant local as well as national issues. The benefit of this is that many campaigns (though not all) are often fought on issues rather than personality.
US elections are extremely light on policy. Clinton did one ‘traditional’ policy launch during the last 10 weeks, on college tuition fees and it felt like that was designed to appease Bernie Sanders supporters more than win over swing voters. Although the parties have manifestos they are rarely talked about or promoted. Trump had headlines but they very neatly summed up his offer. Historically, there has been more of a focus on policy in UK campaigns even if it crystallises into debate on one or two totemic issues but if parties can hit on one or two headlines that cut through like Trump, it may make voters’ decisions easier.
Our political parties can and should emulate the organisational structure and effectiveness of US campaigns and their integration. UK political parties are still some way behind their US counterparts in terms of integration between air and ground war and the use of social media. They are increasingly sophisticated in how they use voter data to target messaging and campaigning but can still learn how to better manipulate it to run the day-to-day ground campaign. Finally, they can all learn from how Trump distilled his values, approach and offer into 140 characters. A combination of Clinton’s organisation and Trump’s soundbite friendly policies could transform UK campaigns.
Above: With Senator Elizabeth Warren following a rally in Nashua, NH
Top image: Signing up volunteers at a rally with Senator Bernie Sanders