The lessons for Labour from Obama's lacklustre campaign

The US president owes his victory to his political machine, not his campaign strategy.

President Obama has a second term but it was much closer than it should have been. He is the victor today because of an impressive tactical and organisational campaign but not on account of his campaign strategy. This morning we saw hope and change in his victory speech - the Obama of ‘08. It is a pity he and his senior strategists didn’t have the courage to do that earlier. Against a better opponent, he could have been defeated. There are big lessons for Labour in this.  

It started to go wrong the minute he won the 2008 election. Instead of his movement for change being transitioned into a new civic corps – 13 million community activists working to change their communities and campaigning on behalf of the President’s agenda – it was folded straight away. It became nothing more than an email list. Never had the gulf between the poetry of campaign and prose of governance been so wide; it was a shock. His personality – cerebral rather than emotional - seemed to morph with this shift. The normalisation of Barack Obama had begun.

One of the biggest myths that he, the Democrats and of course, their opponents managed to create is that he had no record to defend. His record in relative terms is better than any first term President since Franklin Roosevelt. In the battle to attack the Republicans for what they could get through Congress, the Democrats left the impression that they couldn’t get anything through Congress. It was only at the Democratic National Convention where this was addressed: President Bill Clinton came to the rescue.

There, President Obama himself gave a compelling, if slightly clunky, articulation of America with a long-term future under his plans or reverse to the failures of recent Republican presidents. It was the highlight of the campaign for the President. His post-Convention bounce almost put him out of sight of Romney. It was the last time that both a forceful articulation of his record in office and some substance about his forward-looking agenda was placed before the American electorate.

The campaign slogan was "forward". The American people were left asking "forward to what?" Instead, the campaign focused on its opponent far too readily. This was not the Obama they had voted for in 2008, who carefully sought to "take the High Road". This was down and dirty politics. It left the candidate’s voice muffled.

So what? He won, after all, what’s the problem? The problem is that the enthusiasm was gone. That meant that the election was far closer than it should have been. Not only that, but he lacks an enthusiastic propulsion of his second-term agenda against a divided, consequently obstructionist, Congress. The road ahead is now harder than it should have been.

The movement which was electrified in 2008 survives, but only here and there. The keeper of its "respect-empower-include" soul Steve Hildebrand didn’t have a central role this time – personnel matters. In the critical battleground state of Ohio, the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012. In every campaign, there is a moment when things tilt towards a military-style of organisation. This time round is was early. The movement is no more.

Luckily, the professional campaign deployed the latest techniques. It cross-tabulated electoral rolls, consumer databases, social media databases, and voting records. It ruthlessly combined these with information from the doorstep and from focus groups about what was playing well and all this information was combined. It built sophisticated models of voter behaviour which enabled very specific targeting of demographics with issues, fundraising asks and volunteering requests. Instead of direct mail, the preferred vehicle for all this was the doorstep campaigner. TV/web ads supplemented the whole operation in just as targeted a fashion. Yes, this was a machine but it was a very hi-tech and sleek one.

Data, modeling, targeting should, however, be the extra one per cent on the doorstep. What was lost was the four per cent that would have not only been motivated for this campaign but beyond it also. That is what hope and change gets you. Instead, we had attack, deflect, and micro-target.

The lessons Labour should take are mainly from Obama ’08 rather than ’12. Good data, organisation and targeting are necessary as the campaign draws to a close. Before that, it is necessary to build a movement. This means opening out the party as the Obama campaign did for the Democrats in 2008. Members will not be enough if the Conservative financial advantage is to be minimised. It needs neighbours to speak to neighbours, friends to friends, colleagues to colleagues.

A vague offer of change is insufficient as is relying on the negatives of your opponent. The story will be one of national renewal. People will need to know what this means in practical terms – including on their own standard of living. It’s not just about the pounds, shillings and pence though. People want to know that you have a practical vision for the nation. A lack of clarity and your leadership will be undermined.

Obama has given Labour both a guide to how it should be done and a warning of how it can go 'wrong' (a win is a win!). The best political machine in the world can make up for a lot, but it’s a hell of a risk to leave it to a clever political operation: it is more likely to be a necessary but insufficient contributor to victory.

Obama had residual support, his high likeability rating, and demographic changes in his favour. The voting electorate was 85 per cent white in 1988 but only 76 per cent or so by the last election according to Pew Research. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress forecast that it could be as low as 72 per cent this time round. The Detroit bailout gave him some necessary electoral protection in the mid-west- with its cluster of battleground states. And even though Romney got back in the race, the Republicans as a whole still feel on the edge of mainstream America- when a majority of it votes.

Hope and change seems a long way off though – despite today’s speech, which hopefully is not a one-off replay of greatest hits. Labour should be careful not to learn the wrong lesson from Obama’s two victories. By all means learn some practical lessons from Obama ’12 but no more than that. It is Obama ’08 that still provides the way forward. Hope, change and practical vision provide the path to victory – even if Obama lost his way this time round.

Anthony Painter is author of Barack Obama: the movement for change

Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and worked on both Obama '08 and '12

"Against a better opponent, Obama could have been defeated." Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.