What does it take to win an election — millions of dollars, strategic volunteering, candidate charisma, or something else entirely?
That was the question that Barack Obama knew the answer to. All three of them.
Jeffrey Alexander’s book, an inside look at the Obama campaign, shows that Obama reinvented what a passionate ground game could do for a campaign. Obama had millions more dollars than his opponent, John McCain, and he also framed his election as a historic one.
Alexander’s chapter on the ground game argues that Obama’s 700 field offices across the country and thousands of volunteers was key to his election. Volunteers were the embodiment his collective representation of the United States.
If a candidate doesn’t collectively represent their communities, then the candidate’s volunteers, or ground game, won’t be nearly as effective, Alexander argues.
I decided to apply this logic to a different campaign, the N.C. Senate race between Democratic candidate Kay Hagan and Republican candidate Thom Tillis.
Tillis, to the surprise of many pollsters and political-observers, won the seat. It was surprising to Democratic organizers because Hagan used textbook strategies when it came to her ground game. She used the same ground game style as Obama, with neighborhood organizers in urban areas working to register voters and remind people of Election Day.
So what went wrong?
No Obama magic
According to a field organizer for the Hagan campaign, Amanda Wilson, the “Obama magic” wasn’t there — especially for volunteers.
“She went on this campaign of being a moderate and working with the other party, but because she did that, she didn’t appeal to the base,” Wilson said. “She was so focused on getting the marginal votes that she didn’t capture the attention of the base.”
Wilson said Hagan volunteers were often recruited because they worried about the Republican party. Campaign organizers’ had a high turnover rate of about 50 percent.
“I feel like a lot of her volunteers were like, ‘I don’t want Thom Tillis, more so than, ‘I really love Kay Hagan.’”
Tillis, on the other hand, focused on rural areas. He began to use ground organizers as well, but his scope was larger than the handful of urban counties that Hagan lobbied for.
Ground game can only go so far
Personally, I didn’t vote this midterm election, for two reasons. The main reason was that neither candidate riled me up. In addition, the limits to early voting made voting seem like a nuisance, not a convenience.
Turning out the vote is hard, especially during midterms. In 2014, 44 percent of registered N.C. voters went to the polls, a trend in line with most midterms in North Carolina. Hagan’s campaign hinged on getting those voters to the polls, as most Democratic campaigns do.
Wilson said she worked about 90 hours a week for six months, with four hours a day spent calling potential voters. If voters answered their phones, they usually didn’t make it far past the “how are you doing?”
Experts say that disenchantment with politics is one of the reasons why the United States has such terrible voter turnout.
“Voting is merely a side symptom of the much broader question of disengagement from community life and from social life,” said Robert D. Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University, in a CQ Press report. “If you look at voter turnout as the main symptom that something is wrong, you might be inclined to look for political causes of it. It’s plausible to say, ‘I’m not going to vote this year because I’m so upset about Monica.”
In states like North Carolina, though, there are some structural causes. It’s beyond one lazy college student unwilling to go back home in time to early-vote.
“We were so focused on Election Day — we spent early voting time calling volunteers,” she said. “We didn’t focus on early voting.”
Clearly, the N.C. Senate campaign couldn’t be boiled down to one major factor. After the election, exit polls tried to narrow down Tillis’ victory to everything from ISIS to Ebola.
Therefore, though Alexander lauds the Obama ground game strategy, other candidates will probably not be so lucky. They may be up against an apathetic public, if their charisma isn’t just right, or up against restrictive voting laws in their respective areas.
Still, candidates would be well-served to listen to the ground organizers like Wilson, who summarized the campaigning efforts like this: “Obama is the exception to the rule.”