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The Return of Local Political Party Organization: Does the 21st Century look like the 19th?

November 12, 2012 9 comments

As the post-election analysis season begins, political scientists, pundits and campaign consultants will offer several explanations for why President Obama won, and Governor Romney lost. One interpretation offered for President Obama’s win in Ohio was that Obama’s campaign had a much more extensive and effective ground operation. Looking at a map of the Obama and Romney field offices in Ohio reveals a possible (but not definitive) explanation of Obama’s relative advantage over Romney. As Politico.com reports,

Obama campaign officials noted Wednesday that they had years to build up a field operation that was often not visible to the other side. The director of Obama outreach to African-Americans in Ohio oversaw a barber-shop and beauty salon program that helped register new voters and distribute literature. A Congregations Captains Program helped the campaign arm supporters in traditionally African-American congregations with what they needed to mobilize other parishioners.

“Obviously there was still room to grow,” said an Obama campaign official. “We didn’t reach 100 percent capacity in 2008.”

Politico’s post cites Molly Ball’s late October article in The Atlantic Monthly where Ball quotes Obama national field director Jeremy Bird about the ground operation:

“Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible,” Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of “staging locations,” many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand.

“Community organizing is not a turnkey operation,” Bird says. “You can’t throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs — the barber shops, the beauty salons; we’ve got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It’s real, deep community organizing in a way we didn’t have time to do in 2008.”

What is revealing about this analysis (at this point) is how similar Bird’s description of political party organizing is to political party organizing in the late 19th Century. Then, as now, mobilizing voters through decentralized precinct level political party organizations is an effective way of winning elections.  Despite the nationalizing focus of presidential campaigns, the inclusion of global social media, and the extensive use of data mining and micro-targeting of potential voters, electoral politics—in key ways—remains a low-tech, locally based, decentralized activity. As former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once reported his father telling him, “all politics is local.”

But is all politics still local? What lessons, if any, does the Obama ground game hold for future elections? On the one hand, many of the problems of politics still confront people at the local level: good paying jobs in the communities where people live, the quality of local schools, affordable housing. Yet, the forces that shape local life (and the solutions to local problems) increasingly appear to come from state, national and global levels. Will decentralized, but nationally affiliated political parties re-emerge as the associations best able to give local citizens meaningful control over local, regional, statewide, and national political processes? Did they ever disappear?

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