The Obama grassroots campaign: glass half empty or glass half full?

Time for a bit more probing underneath the figures about how big, amazing, awesome and must be copied the Barack Obama 2008 Presidential campaign was. (See in particular my previous post about his fundraising.)

New figures which have seeped out this month from a confidential report by Catalist, one of the big data and technology suppliers to Democrat campaigns, show that 49 million adults were contacted more than 127 million times.

So far, so big.

But let’s put that in a UK money. Pro rata, it is equivalent to around 13,000 people per Westminster constituency being contacted an average of 2.5 times. That’s pretty good going compared to what most British constituency campaigns manage, though worth putting in the context of constituency electorates that are usually in the 70,000+ range.

Or put the figures in the US context. Obama polled just under 70 million votes, with around 131 million votes cast and an eligible adult population of around 210 million. So contacting 49 million adults was equivalent to under a quarter of the eligible adult population or 70% of the votes actually cast for the Obama/Biden ticket.

So pick your numbers, take your places and argue as you choose: either the glass is half empty (’What? Biggest grassroots movement ever and less than a quarter of voters contacted?’) or half full (’Wow! We’re lucky if we end a general election campaign with a few thousand contacts, let alone averaging 13,000 across the whole country.’)

The lessons I’d draw are two-fold. First, the volume of campaigning that can be done if a campaign is heavily focused on recruiting, motivating and training people to be active in their communities. Second, that even the biggest of campaigns get to only a section of the electorate – which makes targeting (both geographically and by other criteria) to get the most out of that activity vital.

Hat-tip for Obama contact data: NetPulse email newsletter.

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