Another country, another campaign room: lessons from the US mid terms?

by Dave Roberts

I spent the spring working on Jim Knight’s valiant but ultimately doomed campaign to hold Dorset South for Labour. Then summer saw me on the Ed Balls leadership campaign. Equally valiant. Equally doomed. Now, with the US mid term elections only a few days away, I’ve taken flight from grey and damp Britain for the campaign trail in sunny South Florida. I am working in the area stretching along Florida’s south east coast from Fort Lauderdale northwards, where the incumbent Democratic Congressman, Ron Klein, is facing a huge challenge from former army Colonel and Tea Party favourite, Allen West.

I want to understand how the Democrats organise on the ground, and to see if there is anything that Labour could learn. Many in the UK have written about the Obama election. Yet few have looked at how the more humdrum mid-term elections are organised. In many ways, though, it is these elections – especially at a congressional district level – that have more in common with a British general election. These elections are numerous, local and personal. They are often contested against a backdrop of national issues and questions over the national leadership, for which the candidate has little or no responsibility, but will be held accountable.

The Delray Beach office is located in a small strip mall with a gun shop as a neighbour. As you walk through the doors, the first thing that strikes you is how familiar many aspects of the organisation are – familiar from images on TV and from our own campaign offices. American bunting hangs on the walls (rather than Labour posters). There are placards for the various candidates: governor, senator, congress and state legislature, and volunteers making calls, distributing posters and dispatching canvass teams.

There are posters, leaflets and stickers stacked against walls, boxes of T shirts, piles of clip boards, scribbled rotas and packets of biscuits scattered across tables. And a hand written notice asking us all to be good neighbours by parking with consideration. A new note on the wall today declares that last week 4817 doors were knocked across the district and urges us to reach a target of 7500 this week.

The volunteers are mainly pensioners or students. They include Pat, who first campaigned in 1964 for Robert Kennedy, and Tim, a Vietnam veteran who honours his Ukrainian grandmother by being a Democrat. Then there is Richard, an expert telephone canvasser whose smooth rhythm is a joy to listen to. And there are a number of other exiles from the UK, making this feel almost home from home.

Change the names and places and this is all very familiar.

But there are differences. The most surprising is the number of registered Democrats that refuse to speak and how fast they hang up the phone. Other differences include the number of paid staff and those on secondment from lobby groups.

Yet this election, like so many, is all about motivation, organisation and turn out. It differs little from the marginal campaigns I have worked over the years.

The lack of motivation amongst Democrats is what is being called the enthusiasm gap. Democrats are faced with overcoming apathy and mid term disillusionment amongst supporters, while Republicans are fired up, assisted by the emergence of the Tea Party Movement. This type of gap is a fact of political life, but is more obvious than usual due to the phenomenal emotional movement that got behind Obama in 2008. It was always going to be a tough task to maintain the level of support achieved during the Presidential race. A struggling economy makes it worse.

Can the Labour party learn from the Democrats? Well of course we can – all political parties can learn from each other. But are we lagging far behind the US when it comes to campaigning on the ground? We certainly have less money to spend and this means we can afford fewer paid staff. The team here has a paid field team which includes a field director and paid canvassers. In the UK we also have less paid-for data, and we don’t advertise in the same way. But do we differ that much in our campaigning methods? I really don’t think so.

In fact, a recent change to electoral law has forced a change in behaviour that moves the US in the direction of the UK. The changes mean that what were once multiple campaigns based around individuals – for senate, governor or congress – are now being gently squeezed into a single campaign based on the Democratic ticket. This is a significant shift which means that coordination of the various campaigns is gradually becoming more the responsibility of the local representatives of the Democratic national committee rather than individual candidates.

This week, the campaign is about motivating core supporters to vote early if possible; and if they won’t do that, then to ensure that they vote on the day. There will be GOTV teams on the phones and on the streets. There will be people offering lifts and others crunching numbers – much like an election week at home.

All in all, the similarities between campaigning on the ground in the US and in the UK are greater than the differences.

One big exception – here in South Florida it will all be done in glorious sunshine.

Dave Roberts, currently on the Ron Klein for congress campaign, is Director, Morgan Roberts Ltd.

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4 Responses to “Another country, another campaign room: lessons from the US mid terms?”

  1. SoCalLiberal says:

    I appreciate what you’re doing for the Democrats. I think Ron Klein will win reelection. The enthusiasm gap is real but it’s important to remember that an unenthusiastic vote and an enthusiastic vote count the same. Early voting across the country is showing that there is large turnout at the polls and Democrats are turning out in high numbers, enthusiastically or not. In fact only in Colorado and Florida are the Republicans outvoting the Democrats in early voting. Also, a number of recent national polls show that in generic voting, the Democrats are either ahead or slightly behind the Republicans. So I think there’s a strong possibility of the Democrats holding the House of Representatives.

  2. Dave Roberts says:

    Arghh – I so wish you had been right – some OK results last night but sadly not in Florida – we got close with Alex Spink but Ron was well beaten in the end – but all is not lost – far from it – 2 years to regroup and rebuild and i hope to be back in South Florida for that election

  3. James Williams says:

    Really interesting article.

    In the US campaign offices tend to be much more visible.

    It is therefore easy for people to walk past the office, actually see inside, and walk straight off the street and say “Hi! I’m Joe Bloggs and I want to campaign for you”.

    Is this something that you could see working in our UK constituencies? or do you think that the overall lack of enthusiasm for campaigning in this country would be very apparent?

  4. Dave Roberts says:

    Good question James – i do know some people have had hight street or visible offices – i reckon they are a good idea – but the issue is money – rent in a bustling hight street or shopping arcade is high – in addition you need easy in easy out leases which are not always available without a premium.

    We did in fact have people wander in from the street in Ft Lauderdale – but most were looking for car registration – or “car TAG” as that is what the office had previously been used for!

    Yet if the economy dips or fails to grow there might be plenty of hight street sites available come the next election and we should look to use them when and where we can

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