how has the experience of campaigning for Obama changed from 2008 to 2012?

This is really a request for comments and insights, especially from people who worked for Obama in both ’08 and this year. Of course, the situation has changed in many ways, and a presidential re-election campaign is necessarily different from an insurgent primary campaign. But what interests me is the possibility that the campaign’s organizing philosophy has changed in ways that alter the experience of volunteers on the ground.

My impression of the ’08 campaign is of yin and yang. On one hand, HQ in Chicago ran a disciplined, high-tech, extraordinarily sophisticated operation. It excelled in everything from delegate math to placing ads and collecting cell phone numbers. On the other hand, though, the campaign encouraged creativity and debate. “Camp Obama” trained the most committed volunteers in a distinctive style of campaign outreach. They were encouraged not to use a script developed at campaign headquarters, but instead to begin genuine conversations with people in their communities. The campaign’s social network hub was an exciting forum for debate and new ideas. The candidate spoke in detail about his plans for the future, and each proposal incited debate and discussion among his volunteers.

This style was consistent with Obama’s rhetoric of active citizenship. As he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, he said, “I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.” On his first day of office, the new president issued an executive order that directed all agencies to “offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.”

News reports about this election suggest that yin has eclipsed yang. The re-election campaign is even more efficient at marketing and mobilization, but it has lost its “civic fizz.” The interesting debates are happening in other spaces, volunteers are repeating talking points, and everything is targeted.

In Slate, Sasha Issenberg writes that the behavior of “hundreds of thousands of other canvassers and callers in the closing hours of the election … may look like the basic work of campaigns, the slog of door knocks and repetitive phone calls. But as is the case with much of Obama’s campaign, the dutiful fieldwork is undergirded by sophisticated analytics unmatched by his Republican opponents.” He goes on to describe the algorithms that Chicago uses to place its volunteers and determine their messages.

Reid Cherlin of GQ describes Chicago HQ as stocked with “whiz-bang technologies and startup geniuses.” He reports:

every possible organizational and statistical tool that a campaign wonk could dream up is being marshaled by the campaign ten-fold. … Obama for America, in its sixth continuous year of operation, is a slavishly meritocratic enterprise; the stars of 2008’s groundbreaking field program are now the guys running the organization. These tend to be individuals with ample personal charisma (handy if, say, you’re trying to get a dozen retirees in rural Virginia to devote yet another evening to making calls), a Wall Street trader’s love of spreadsheets, and virtually limitless belief in Barack Obama as a candidate and leader. They love data and systems; they love ‘best practices’ and ‘scaling things up;’ they love visuals.

Campaign manager Jim Messina tells Cherlin he is proud of how headquarters tracks every person who “likes” Obama’s Facebook page and hits them with individually customized messages. Every video and image is professionally designed and tested to reinforce the Obama brand. Messina says, “We just turn every person into an organizer, with technology and with information.” What he really means is: We give everyone tailored advertising material that they can share with a single click. This is not active citizenship; it is social marketing for a brand, borrowed straight from commercial advertising.

But am I missing aspects of the 2012 campaign?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.