Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Advice from South of the Border

The Liberal convention earlier this month grabbed a lot of headlines - Mike Crawley's 26-vote victory over Sheila Copps for party President, the party's move to the supporter system, the decision to, like, totally legalize marijuana.

As important as those events were, the real work of rebuilding the party will happen behind the scenes. That's why one of my convention highlights was the talk by a pair of Obama operatives, Rich Mintz and Tom McMahon. I'll confess I often skip these convention workshops since many are nothing more than "so you should all sign up for this Twitter thing" - but the 90 minutes I listed to Mintz and McMahon were so chalk full of useful information that I found myself furiously trying to keep up as I scribbled down notes.

Here are just some of the many take home points I took from their talk:

When it all Works

The Obama campaign raised $550 million online during the last election, from 2 million unique donors. Yes, we're talking about the big leagues, but even when you adjust for population, that means they had twice as many donors as the Conservatives and six times as many as the Liberals in a typical year.

So how'd they do it? Well, their 13 million e-mail addresses help. That means they were in direct contact with almost 1-in-5 Democratic voters (and a few people like me who enjoy getting updates from Joe Biden).

How they got there

It might be revisionist history, but what really struck me is how their description of the Democratic Party circa 2004 sounded a lot like today's Liberal Party - "we had an unclear message", "people didn't know what we stood for", "voters said we talked down to people". So how the hell did they turn that ship around?

The key, according to the Obama boys, was connecting directly with voters and supporters - tell them a story and make them feel like they're part of something bigger.

To do that, they made an effort to help out at non-political events centered on local issues like the environment and homelessness, to bring activists into the party tent. They recruited organizers and trained them, then empowered them to recruit and train others. They invested in technology and infrastructure up front, even if it meant borrowing money.

Despite the campaign's online focus, they built relationships in person, setting up "neighbour-to-neighbour" (well, "neighbor-to-neighbor" I guess) programs, so that volunteers could work on people they knew. Similarly, when making phone calls, they always tried to pair up the caller with someone from the same region and background, since this made it easier to build a connection.

Every interaction was captured so that future e-mails and fundraising pitches could be tailored to the target. They did the work well before the election started and insisted that all candidates turned their data over to the party. Compare that to the Liberal Party where many candidates flush their files after each election or hoard Excel lists like Scrooge McDuck.

The 50 State Strategy

When asked about the Liberal Party's chances in Western Canada, Mintz and McMahon pointed to the 50 state strategy, which met with intense opposition out of the gate, but has been largely vindicated. Even in states they didn't win, the Democrats were able to put enough pressure on Republicans to force them into playing defense (something Mark Holland talked about in his speech to Alberta Liberals last spring).

The Democrats built themselves up in "hopeless" states much the same way they built themselves up in winning states. They hired 4-to-6 field workers per state, and tasked them with finding and training volunteers, who in turn found and trained more volunteers. They recruited strong candidates to run at the local and state level, and began campaigning well before 2008.

Rather than bringing the mountain to them, they went to the mountain. Literally. The DNC held its convention in Denver, and had as many events as possible in weaker areas to build up interest in the party. They found effective local issues and messages, and gave local Democrats the power to sell the party locally.

The Donkey in the Room

Now, it would be incredibly naive to assume Barack Obama had nothing to do with this. I've been preaching against the "Messiah complex" in the Liberal Party for a long time, but we do need to recognize that a popular leader can serve as a catalyst to speed up the rebuilding process.

Still, just as a good leader will help the ground game, having this kind of infrastructure in place will benefit the next leader. The Liberal Party would be wise to take a few lessons from our friends south of the border.



  • All good, sorry great, advice and what the Party must do.

    However, I see one key difference. Obama was really lucky he was following Bush and his disaster of a presidency. We don't have a Bush!

    By Blogger mezba, at 4:26 p.m.  

  • I sat in on that session too and you're right on all points, CG - we can learn a lot from them. I hope everyone was listening too.

    By Blogger Kyle H., at 4:29 p.m.  

  • Actually, we have someting worse than Bush.

    By Blogger double nickel, at 4:46 p.m.  

  • While we can not win in rural alberta, we CAN win seats in places like Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Kamloops... we should be trying to win here as well.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 10:15 p.m.  

  • As for making voters feel like part of something bigger than themselves, I wish to God that the Liberal Party would start standing unequivocally for federalism. That would distinguish the party very clearly from the Conservatives, who still try to pander to Quebec nationalists.

    It would be especially useful against the NDP - it's past time to hold them accountable for their shameful repudiation of the Clarity Act. Make it clear to Canadians that there's only one progressive alternative that is also federalist.

    By Blogger Vancouverois, at 10:39 p.m.  

  • ridingBYriding - agreed. When you look at the demos and provincial vote results, there's no reason the Liberals can't win urban ridings in the West.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 10:22 a.m.  

  • Unfortunately that 'story' told by the Obama operatives turned out to be mostly a lie. Anyone with half a pulse who has been paying the slightest bit attention is now at best totally skeptical and at worst completely disillusioned with the system that allows those masquerading as 'leadership' to spew forth such utter fables and nonsense. The world has changed but not (for the better) these dinosaurs with it.

    By Blogger hettygreen, at 12:44 p.m.  

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