Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Political Campaign Strategy - just like businesses

I hate to write another post connecting strategy techniques to politics…but…this is hard to resist.

Gary Neilson, Karla Martin and Elizabeth Powers outline the top five traits that allow companies to successfully execute strategy. I think these top five traits are also the top five traits that make political campaigns run successfully.

Regardless of what side of the aisle you are on, it is a well-accepted fact that the 2008 Obama for America Campaign was one of the best-run political campaigns in history.  Having been a staff member on that campaign, I want to argue that their success followed closely the five traits Neilson, Martin and Powers put forth in their article. Many attribute Obama’s Campaign success to timing, the candidate himself, the political climate and the rhetoric. However, I’ll argue below how the success was in fact due to successful execution of strategy using the five traits.

Looking at the first trait – “everyone has a good idea of decisions and actions they are responsible for”:  the campaign had a strong and closely followed organizational chart.  In the field, each state had a state director, a state field director, a youth vote director, a political director, regional field directors (in charge of each region) and field organizers.  In each campaign office there was a field organizer, an office manager, a canvass director, a phone bank captain, and a data entry captain.  This highly specific organizational chart ensured that everybody knew which actions and decisions they were responsible for.   The article states, that without this organizational chart, “It becomes increasingly unclear where one person’s accountability begins and another’s ends”.  The Obama Campaign, managed to avoid this however, by over detailing their organizational chart and copying it from state-to-state.

Trait two: “Important information about the competitive environment gets to the headquarters quickly”.  On the Campaign, all activity was reported on an hourly basis: the volunteers filled out detailed sheets on their canvass or phone bank experience. This form was given to the field organizers who were required to call in numbers to their regional field directors every three hours, the regional field directors called numbers into the state field director (and the chain goes on).  The form required volunteers to tally how many doors they knocked on, how each person rated Obama, the issues they considered most important to them and several other key pieces of information.  The data and computer teams worked through the night to then analyze this data, understand what it meant for the bottom line (in this case, number of votes each region needed to turn out for Obama) and then state leadership would re-examine goal numbers and shift targets accordingly.  Information flowed quickly and often to ensure that the state leadership and headquarters had a pulse on the finger of each region. Furthermore, this information chain allowed for Campaign Headquarters to focus their efforts elsewhere and leave field offices to carry out their work.  The article states, “by delegating operational responsibility to the people closer to the action, top executives were free to focus on more global strategic issues”. On the campaign, the constant information flow allowed the field organizers and states to work through goals and targets, amending them as need be.  This allowed Chicago Headquarters to focus on debates, the candidate’s speeches, and other campaign events

Trait Three: information and decisions are not second-guessed.  On Obama for America, the staff loved working on the campaign and generally respected the leadership.  More than that, field staff trusted the leadership and knew above all that we had to execute whatever they demanded of us.  This came however, with a degree of individual agency.  I, for example, worked as a field organizer on my college campus.  My state field director and regional field director gave me specific targets and goals I was required to make each day, however field organizers had the agency and understanding to be able to adapt specific programs to make them work best in their individual precincts.  I did not question my leadership’s decisions and if I made my targets, they did not question mine.  The value of this is, as the article states, is: Clarifying decision rights and responsibilities also improved the organization’s ability to track individual achievement, which helped it chart new and appealing career-advancement paths.”  Regions had nightly conference calls, everybody reported numbers to the states: how many doors you knocked you on, calls made, volunteers recruited, etc.  Field organizers, who did well, stayed with the administration or with Organizing For America and are now in key positions on the 2012 campaign.

Traits four and five:  Information flows freely across organizational boundaries and field and line employees usually have the information they need to understand the bottom line impact of their day-to-day choices”. The Campaign placed significant emphasis on data and numbers. As field organizers we were driven by our daily numbers, how many voters we contacted, however many voters were supporters of Obama.  We had a target number of supporters we needed by Election Day and a target number of voters we needed to turn out to the polls. These numbers were reported, changed and worked with every day.  This intense emphasis on data entry and the bottom line allowed field organizers to understand the day-to-day impact of our actions and choices.   From region to region or state to state our information and transparent and shared across the board.  We often had regional competitions of who could knock the most doors, the winning regions always shared their tactics. Furthermore, from Chicago headquarters down, field organizers were consistently updated. Quarterly we had conference calls with then Senator Obama himself and David Plouffe. They were transparent and forthcoming with information which allowed staff to have more trust in the campaign and to stay 100% invested for the duration. 

Beyond the rhetoric and the speeches and all the hype of the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama’s success can be attributed to successful implementation and execution of a well-defined strategy.  Campaigns that struggle often do so not because of political climate or a candidate’s ability to make a speech but because a campaign does not have a strong strategy and a solid central message.  Take Newt Gingrich’s campaign this summer, they had no strategy and implemented none of these traits. Ultimately this led his whole staff to walk out on him and forced him to reinvent his campaign.  Or take McCain's 2008 campaign, their field presence was almost non-existant. It was rare that in a weekend knocking on doors, I would run into McCain volunteers.  They did not emphasize field strategy and relied instead on fundraising and events.  Looking at the history of political organizing, field strategy is often the key to success. Solid field strategy is similar to business strategy, but above all, this strategy has to be executed successfully to succeed. 

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