Recruit, retain, inspire: The lessons of the Ohio campaign for the UK

Sam Bacon presents a first-hand account of what was done on the ground in Ohio to win the key swing state and thus the election for President Barack Obama.


An email from an old friend is always very welcome, but an email from an old friend offering paid flights to the US to come work on a campaign is more welcome than most… Sam Bacon, ex-community organiser, looks at how President Obama and the Democrats won the key state of Ohio

And so it was three weeks ago I found myself heading back to Ohio, a place I’d been four years previously, to work the last few weeks of a democratic congressional campaign and to do what we could to help the President.

Four years ago, in the wake of the President’s victory, a whole swarm of ‘What can UK politics learn from Obama?’ stories and publications emerged. A lot of these contained valuable insights, interesting analysis and direct challenges to our political culture. Many people through read such articles with incredulity, being very clear in their minds such a thing could never work in the UK.

In the week since I’ve been back from Ohio, a similar pattern is already emerging. People have repeatedly asked me what the campaign was like and when I tell them, bat me away with just how different politics is when literally billions of dollars are poured into elections.

And of course this is true, it is different, but the results I saw on the ground had little to do with money, and everything to do with attitude.

To take the final four days of the campaign as an example – in our single congressional campaign (a somewhat Republican-gerrymandered district we only ever had a slim chance of winning), we were making more than 700 contacts a day – that is having 700 individual unique conversations with voters per day, meaning more than 2,800 in just four days.

Or, to put it another way, many more in just one long weekend than most campaigns at home do in months.

Too often, numbers such as the above are simply discounted with a familiar refrain; politics in the US is much more glamorous, the vast population difference means they are better able to drum up support and reach more people, or simply, with a billion dollars, we could all hit such targets.

From my experience on both sides of the Atlantic, each and every one of these is an excuse, that three weeks in the US and months upon months of hard slog in the UK simply doesn’t bare out.

To address these typical responses in turn: first, the glamour argument. Despite the difficult four years in office the President has had, he is still a charismatic, eloquent and exciting orator, and still the first and only black man to be elected President of the USA. As such, whilst it is not the campaign it was four years ago, his bid for re-election was of course still charged with excitement and, yes, some glamour.

However, I can be categorical the type of results listed above were nothing to do with the President – whilst we were working to get him elected our primary focus was the Congressional candidate – so we had little ability to offer the reflected glamour of a Presidential race to entice volunteers. In fact, Organizing for America, the President’s re-election organisation on the ground, was a direct competitor of ours for volunteers, so in reality we had to achieve those results against the ‘glamour’ of the Presidential race.

Second, population. Yes, the USA is of course many many times the size of the UK, and its population vastly outweighs ours. However, the 700 contacts a day was delivered by approximately 30-40 volunteers each day. Remarkable for most constituencies in this country, but absolutely the norm for some, such as the Labour campaign in Birmingham Edgbaston and even in a local ward campaigns such as the one I ran in Broadheath.

Things can and have been done differently here already, yet there remains an element of disbelief that simply by working hard to recruit, mobilise, retain, manage and inspire volunteers phenomenal amounts of work can be done. But in Ohio this is exactly what I saw, and exactly how we were able to get decent-sized teams out to help us, achieving such fantastic results.

And third, money, the old fallback. Now of course, American politics is flush with unimaginable amounts of wealth. And yes, even the Congressional campaign I was on had four paid field staff. But again, on the ground, the way we reached so many voters was the simplest of things – relationships. Every day, the campaign invested at least 2-3 hours of volunteers’ time in calling other people who had expressed strong support for the candidate either at the door or on the phone and asked if they could come and be part of the campaign.

Others were then calling those that had agreed and were scheduled to come in to remind them of when and where they needed to be, and tell them just how much their efforts meant and how appreciated their support was. Funnily enough, this focus on initiating, building and then maintaining positive and inspiring communications with volunteers meant people wanted to come and join the campaign and once there, wanted to come back again and again.

Across the political spectrum, campaigns in this country continue to be decidedly insular. Volunteers are only sought from within party ranks with non-members still treated with suspicion by many.

The lesson we should learn from Ohio is not that a historic President and a billion dollars can make a fantastic campaign, but that a different attitude built around reaching out widely into the community we’re working in to recruit, retain and inspire volunteers means much more work can be done on the ground by a broader base of people.

It’s not rocket science, but it just helped put the President in the White House again, and given a chance, I believe it can propel whichever party leader is bold enough to truly embrace it into Number Ten in 2015.

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