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

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

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?

  1. Andrew Merenda
    November 15, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    If Obama’s campaign strategy in Ohio can stand as an example of national politics working to show more of an interest at the local level, in a time where the average American feels mostly removed and disconnected from national politics, then I guess that is a good thing. However, whether future campaigns will continue to move in the direction of Obama’s campaign strategy is uncertain, I think that if they wish to be successful in gaining support they will have to start paying more attention to local politics. Plus it is always a nice thought to think some politician really cares about me and the interests of my community… no matter how naive that may be it is still a comforting warm, fuzzy thought.

  2. Sam Stodolski
    November 20, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I think this is a perfect example of why local politics matters. Look at the primaries, Iowa plays an important role. The ground strategy in Iowa is huge and the state is heavily saturated during the kickoff of the primary election. I think it would be interesting to see if any of the state and national policies actually trickle down to the local level…

  3. Monique
    November 26, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    I think that this is an eye opener for many people because many say that local politics is not important and this goes to prove them wrong. You can’t argue with the facts and the statement about Obama’s campaign strategy in Ohio makes perfect sense. Everything in politics matters, even down to the small things.

  4. john yonke
    November 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I think that large administrations appealing to local politics during campaign season works with a lot of voters because they feel as if the candidate actually cares about them and is personally catering to their needs. The politicians need local politics to survive because they are able to gain more votes through it, and therefore I believe that local politics will remain important.

  5. Lexa Buerer
    November 29, 2012 at 12:58 pm

    I think that Obama’s strategy is a good one and it showed because it helped him win Ohio as well as the other states (I would assume because of this strategy). The fact that President Obama’s staff set up so many locations in local communities had a large impact on the outcome of the election because constituents felt like their votes mattered and were more motivated to cast their vote. I would hope that politicians begin to understand that this strategy will be beneficial for them in the long run because focusing on constituents in local governments is just as important as focusing on the constituents in states as a whole.

  6. November 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I feel that this really broadens the horizons of people across the nation considering that fact that numerous people feel no need to pay attention to local politics because it may not seen important. In my opinion that is completely wrong. Obama’s strategy is actually looking to be effective because it made a large impact in Ohio. I feel that even the smallest news in politics can make a hue difference.

  7. Jordyn Doyle
    November 29, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I feel like this is a good thing. In my government class last year, my teacher always said people don’t vote because they don’t feel like their vote matters. But everyone’s vote matters even if their vote wasn’t a winning vote or anything like that. If politics become more popular locally, so will every other level. Hopefully.

  8. Jesus Hernandez
    November 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Demonstrates the need for an effective foundation in a campaign. Build up from local politics; before you know it, the efforts depict strong national support.

  9. Donna
    December 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

    This is a great thing for our society. It seems that people don’t vote because they feel their vote wont account for anything because their choice of party did not win. But in fact everyones vote does matter even if their vote didnt get the win. I just feel that if politics become more popular locally then so will every other level of politics.

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