Barack Obama’s campaign is often portrayed as being an excellent example of a highly organised grassroots operation, tapping into the enthusiasm of millions around the country and turning that into money, help and votes. But was the real secret of that grassroots organisation having lots of staff rather than having lots of enthusiastic volunteers?
That seems to be the conclusion from comparing the current stuttering attempts to mobilise grassroots support for his health reform proposals with the previous election campaign. The big difference between the current health debate and those campaigns is how many fewer staff there are on the ground. As TechPresident reports the Washington Post saying:
When Bird arrived in Wisconsin last week, he recognized all the familiar hallmarks of an underdog fight. Gone were the 44 field offices across the state where Obama organizers had worked during the campaign; now Bird spent his visit searching for power outlets in Wisconsin coffee shops and conducting conference calls at sidewalk cafes. Gone were the 100 paid staffers who orchestrated an Obama victory in the state; now OFA employed one person in Wisconsin, Grandone, who hoped to hire two or three assistants if the budget allowed.
The full TechPresident report is well worth a read, but does it all matter?
It certainly does for anyone trying to transferring lessons from the Obama campaign to the UK. British politics has far less money in it than American politics, and as a result there are far fewer paid staff on the ground. Even if a UK party was to hugely improve its fundraising through finding some internet holy grail that has somehow escaped everyone in British politics so far, that still would not be enough to allow UK staff numbers to equal that in the US. Only a lottery-style cash windfall would do that.
So if key parts of the Obama grassroots effort were really down to having money and so staff, then it means attempts to replicate them in an environment of far fewer staff are bound to fail – and that a much more subtle and nuanced learning of lessons is required.