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Itís the ground game

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 11 September 2013


There were more than a few echoes of Obama in Kevin Rudd’s concession speech on Saturday night. Perhaps Rudd felt that a bit of inspirational oomph and an emphasis on the unity of Australians would position him for a future election like Obama: the underdog coming up from behind on the strength of his voice and rhetoric. But anyone who thinks that Obama won in 2008, and again in 2012, because of his speech making or rhetorical power ought to think again. Obama won more because he routed the Republicans in what Americans call the ‘ground game’.

In 2012, The Daily Kos provided an example from David Harris Gershon as to how the ground game works. A young fresh-faced and simply-dressed fellow with a clipboard knocks on Harris Gershon’s door, announcing himself by saying, ‘May I tell you why it’s important to vote for Barack Obama?’. The young man tells about the importance of health care, taking care to interweave his own story of being an only child of a mother recovering from breast cancer. The young man is able to respond to questions about what he is spruiking both knowledgeably and confidently. He then asks if hecan provide another reason for voting for Obama: ‘Well, here's another reason for me. Obama's student loan reform makes it that I might be able to afford going to college, if I get in anywhere. We don't have the money to pay for tuition at many places and I’d like to get scholarships but don't know that I will. So I’ll have to get loans which are risky because what if I don't get a job after school? Obama's made it so I can get an education without worrying so much about debt. But do you know what Mitt Romney would do?... He wants to go back to the way it was and let banks control everything. All he cares about is what's good for the rich. I need a President who cares about everyone.’

The young man then asks Harris Gershon for a commitment (it’s called ‘closing the deal’): ‘Will you make a commitment?... Yeah, will you sign that you plan to vote for Obama?’. Harris Gershon signs the young man’s clipboard, who then says that he will return to remind Harris Gershon of the commitment on election day.

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What did the young man have? Knowledge. Passion. Recognition of the importance of what he was doing, importance for himself and for his country.

This is an unremarkable story in so many ways. It follows a standard campaigning format, with no bells or whistles. My argument is that the election results on Saturday might have taken different forms at least in some electorates if our political parties had bothered with a ground game.

No one knocked on my door asking for my commitment. I received two letters from my local member, Malcolm Turnbull, or rather from Malcolm Turnbull’s office, mass-produced spiels that went straight to the circular file. I doubt whether any of the other prosperous burghers of Bondi Junction received any more. Noone from the Labor Party or any other party even bothered to turbo-call.

Now admittedly Malcolm Turnbull is not much worried about his majority in Wentworth, and with good reason.

But let’s look at the candidates who won ‘against the grain’, that is, those who did not just coast into office on the backlash against the Labor government. That is, those who made a swing happen against the Liberals. These are candidates like Adam Bandt, who increased his majority so that he is now edging towards a majority on primary votes in the seat of Melbourne. His policies, Greens policies, didn’t get a swing going towards most other Greens candidates around the country. Asked what he did to achieve his result, Bandt gave what appeared to be a very conventional answer: ‘Mr Bandt said his team of volunteers had door-knocked some 43,000 homes and made more than 23,000 phone calls in the electorate in a grassroots blitz of the seat…. We reconnected with the people of Melbourne’.

Or here’s how Cathy McGowan achieved a 9% swing in Indi, against the grain. Cambell Klose and Nick Haines set out how McGowan’s campaign connected with the electorate in a broad range of ways, from social media through to fundraising bushdances. Sure, MacGowan had a flying start given that her opponent is Sophie Mirabella, and McGowan might still not scrape through in the seat. But the lessons seem clear.

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So here’s my advice to candidates who aspire to get elected from an underdog position. First, read David Plouffe’s book The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory. Then map out your electorate with military precision, so that you understand that electorate and what makes its citizens tick. Ken Walsh writes about Obama’s ‘ethnography project’, a data-mining project designed to understand at a very deep level the hopes and experiences of the  citizens, not just the direction of their vote on polling day. Read The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg.

And then recruit a small army of volunteers, young fresh-faced people with knowledge, passion and a recognition that what they are working for is important. Send them out with a clipboard – plus a few pairs of shoes, with the instruction that they are not to come back until the soles are all worn through. Provide them with knowledge about what the candidate stands for, and how those policies make a difference in people’s lives. Equip the volunteers with ideas about how to strengthen a commitment. Make a personal connection with the voters.

Of course, it is easier to recruit such a little army if you can inspire them in the first place. That is, if your policy rests on something other than the meanest and most vicious program towards the most wretched of the earth. So maybe this plan won’t work for the major parties. But for the rest, time to get off our bums, and stop thinking that signing a GetUp online petition accomplishes anything in getting decent candidates elected.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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