Volunteers taking it to the streets

Last updated 09:07 29/10/2012

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Even the biggest political campaigns still rely on old-fashioned grassroots techniques - but technology means it's done with more sophistication than ever. Kiwi pollster Stephen Mills reports from the United States.

"Ward politics" wasn't a term I expected to hear in interviews with Democratic Party strategists for the US presidential campaign.

It was used to explain how US politics, after 50 years of total domination by television, is returning, to some degree, to the days when local politicians knew their voters.

It is an article of faith in the Democrats' campaign to get President Barack Obama re-elected that their superior ground organisation is, as Minnesota campaign manager Jeff Blodgett outlined, their "ace in the hole, worth 1 per cent and possibly 2 per cent".

If that is the case it may well secure victory in a lineball election.

As Blodgett outlined, the Obama campaign has made a strategic decision to make a bigger investment in the ground game. In every swing state Obama has more paid staff, more offices and more volunteers than the Republicans. According to the Atlantic of October 24, Obama leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney in number of field offices, by 131 to 40 in Ohio, 105 to 47 in Florida and 61 to 30 in Virginia.

Blodgett and other Obama staffers relayed that a "community organising" ethos is embedded in the Democrat campaign. They point out this comes from the very top, stemming from Obama's background as a community organiser.

Blodgett explains that the system has changed from paid organisers recruiting all volunteers to recruiting "super volunteers" who take on that task. The aim is to go deeper than just identifying vote targets. It is to build "communities of interest" around and "develop relationships" with voters. They want to take at least some supporters up a "ladder of engagement" to being volunteers and then leaders.

The Obama campaign volunteer model is a "snowflake" with a team leader in each neighbourhood and others who will be responsible for tasks such as phone bank work, digital communication, canvassing and data management. Organisations are tailored for different communities such as African American, Latinos, students and smaller groups.

I met one "super volunteer", Karla Brown, whose enthusiasm and commitment was palpable. She was a stay-at-home mum who, soon after dropping by the Minneapolis Obama office, was at work setting up the Obama office in the twin city of St Paul. Now she is working five hours a day, five days a week and some weekends recruiting, training and scheduling the front desk volunteers.

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Another, Hal Huggins, modestly claims he is not the best team leader in Minnesota but is very proud that he was "one of the first". He was recruited by phone and has spent up to 20 hours a week for the last 18 months co- ordinating phone banks and canvassing.

Polls show more voters in swing seats have been contacted by the Obama group than the Romney campaign but the Republicans are also putting in huge resources.

The Atlantic cited a Republican claim of 45 million voter contacts by volunteers, including 9m door knocks which "they say is four times as many as the entire 2008 campaign and 12 times as many as the same time in the 2008 cycle". There are also reports of a major effort by evangelical groups to get their vote out for Romney.

Of course it is not as simple as a return to the 1950s. Local campaigns are now armed with the insights of data analysts and behavioural scientists, they have smartphone technology and can use the new tools of social media.

Tom McMahon of New Partners stressed the pace of change. He was a principal architect of the celebrated Howard Dean presidential bid in 2004 that broke new ground on using the internet to raise funds and mobilise supporters. This campaign was working largely with email pseudonyms but with Facebook, campaigns now have actual names and much more personal information.

The Obama and Romney campaigns use web cookies on those who sign up as online supporters, to track their internet use so as to identify the issues that matter to them and direct canvasser contacts and other campaign communications.

Jim St George of campaign software specialist NGP VAN explained that supporters who sign up on Facebook can give the campaign access to their Facebook friends. These friends are matched against voter-updated post-visit data files and the original supporter can be primed via different scripts to recruit friends as volunteers or persuade and motivate them to vote.

Political information coming from friends and family has much more persuasive power than a campaign ad, or a robocall or email from the candidate.

St George also gave the example of how social media can be used to make connections between the small numbers of otherwise "isolated" rural white Democrats, and from that how an organisation can build.

Obama canvassers have a smartphone app that enables them to download lists of targets to visit in a neighbourhood and then send updated post-visit data back to the central voter file.

Scientific testing of what actually works and the broader insights of behavioural science also inform the pitches made by volunteers. Recently publicised examples are that politely shaming potential voters into turning out is much more effective than standard appeals. Being asked by a local volunteer to vote can work better than a candidate. Ringing them up and asking them how they are going to get to the polling station also works. There has been a big return to grassroots organising in the United States but it is old fashioned, face-to-face communication enhanced by technology and employing social media tools.

Stephen Mills is executive director of UMR Research. He is in the US following the presidential election campaign.

- The Press

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