By Citizen Staff
The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) of Government attracts students with diverse backgrounds and experiences. This diverse student body includes quite a few seasoned campaign workers with informed opinions on the current state of affairs on both Presidential campaigns in the US. The Citizen interviewed five such students who have been involved with past Presidential campaigns to figure out what they thought about the current campaigns*. This article presents key insights from these interviews.
The student panel
Brian Chiglinsky, MPP ’14, worked as a volunteer on a state-wide campaign in Virginia. He also volunteered for the mayoral election in Washington DC in 2010 working in the Democratic primary.
Ben Goldsmith, MPA ’13, also lived in Washington DC for five years before coming to HKS, where he campaigned for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election. This year, he has fundraised for congressional races around the country and volunteered with the Obama and Warren campaigns.
Alex Yergin, MPP/MBA ’15, worked on the Bush-Cheney campaign. He has been involved in policy research as well as operations. He also worked on the Giuliani and McCain presidential campaigns and greatly enjoyed the experience. He has also campaigned for several congressional candidates.
Reuben Kantor, MC/MPA ’13, began campaigning in 2005 for Governor Deval Patrick, first as a volunteer and later was hired as Deputy Field Director. Kantor also worked on Governor Patrick’s re-election in 2010, additionally helping get out the vote for Barney Frank in a tight race. He has experience running city council races in Boston, and was involved locally with Obama’s 2008 campaign, getting Boston volunteers up to New Hampshire.
Robert Blanco, MPP ’14, was a field organizer in the 2008 Obama campaign. He was specifically involved with implementing the paid canvassing program in Las Vegas, Nevada, with over 60 hired field workers, canvassing door-to-door on a daily basis and gathering critical information on voter patterns. In later years, he worked for a state senator in Sacramento, California.
Jumphead: Message, funding and volunteers make a dynamic campaign
The panelists agree that delivering an effective message using strong ground support and financial resources is the key to an effective campaign. Kantor emphatically states, “I think there are three broad parts that are critical to campaigns – messaging, fundraising and field.” He continues, “A candidate who is unable to raise money, will be slowed before even getting started. But it is pretty important to figure out the message that explains what the candidate is about, and effectively deliver that.”
The third component of an effective campaign, and possibly the key differentiator, is the field work. Kantor explains, “The ideal goal of a campaign is to identify enough supporters so that their votes on Election Day add up to a win. The goal in the field is to reach every single voter before Election Day, and every single supporter or likely supporter on Election Day.” This is clearly a tough job that requires mobilizing a huge volunteer support base, since so much of campaigning involves volunteer outreach. “The volunteers come from friends, your family and everyone who believes in you.”
“The most important thing,” agrees Goldsmith, “is to stay on the message. But the other important thing is to be positive and present. Often times, people do not remember what you say but their impression of you. To the average voter it really comes down to whether or not they like the guy.”
Research may be critical in framing and delivering the right message effectively. Yergin reminds us, “Policy research, the work I was doing, can help in deciding the course of the campaign. We live in an age where people can fact check stuff immediately, so you have to know your facts.”
The third component of an effective campaign, and possibly the key differentiator, is field work. Kantor explains, “The ideal goal of a campaign is to identify enough supporters that you can count on Election Day so you can win the election. The goal in the field is to reach every single voter before Election Day, and every single supporter or likely supporter on Election Day.” This is clearly a tough job that requires mobilizing a huge volunteer support base, since 98 percent of campaigning involves volunteer outreach. “The volunteers come from friends and families and everyone who believes in you.”
“What is important in a good campaign,” adds Yergin, “is that the people working for you have to really believe in you. The candidate should be visible. A good candidate, like the CEO of a corporation, has to be a leader, not just for the voters but also for the campaign workers. Sen. McCain would come in regularly to the campaign, walk around and ask people how they are doing. When everyone has been working really long hours for very low salaries or no money at all, it makes a world of difference when the candidate comes in and shows he cares about you.”
Evaluating the Obama campaign
Chiglinsky, who has considerable experience campaigning for the Democratic Party, excitedly offers, “The Obama campaign is incredibly powerful in mobilizing and empowering the campaign volunteers at the local level. They pioneered the use of technology to build community events in 2007 when the campaign manager used web videos to explain campaign strategy directly to each campaign volunteer.”
“What I really appreciate on the volunteer side,” adds Kantor, “is how the Obama campaign approached this election by investing in ground operations months ago. Even now, the Obama campaign has much stronger field operations, evident in the investment that has been made in getting field organizers on the ground, building organizations locally and getting volunteers actively working in their communities.” Building on this point, Blanco points out, “The Obama campaign has done a fairly good job in preserving the ground level infrastructure from 2008. They did not have to build it from scratch. The same infrastructure was re-energized in 2010 and is still being utilized in 2012. I particularly know that Nevada has a huge advantage with the know-how and seasoning that some of the campaigners developed.”
On the second dimension of message also, the campaign has fared well according to some. Goldsmith makes the case, “The President started early and has done a good job of reaching out to Democrats. He is well organized with grassroots organizations reaching wide and deep. I also think that in the last month he has especially done a good job of framing the Republican campaign in a bad light.” Kantor adds, “Until the first debate, Obama was clearly winning on the message front. Voters related to him more even though he is facing a tough economy. The Democratic Convention was a huge hit compared to the Republican Convention, which just seemed like a debacle. Overall, Obama is a strong and trustworthy deliverer of the message and connects to the voters.”
“I think the campaign is working great in terms of connecting to the actual voter base,” agrees Chiglinsky. “The Obama campaign is very good at tailoring regional messages, reaching out to the voters and keeping in close contact with them. My family is down in southwest Virginia, which isn’t really a strong hold for Democrats, but they are still regularly contacted by the Obama campaign there.”
Chiglinsky continues, “At the macro level, the Obama campaign is also effective in creating multiple routes to achieve 270 votes due to strong campaigning and a broad-based appeal, so that there is no must-win state for the campaign. This is something the campaign manager stressed in 2008. I think that is a very powerful way to run an election. On the other hand, however, as an incumbent, it is going to be difficult to mobilize the same energy there was in 2008. A lot more Democrats are likely to be less energized because they would assume the President’s re-election is a foregone conclusion, and they need not mobilize to get out the vote.” This seems especially challenging in the context of young voters. Blanco explains, “The current Obama campaign has not done enough to energize young voters again. They probably assumed that people would come out just like in 2008. However, I have not seen the same level of enthusiasm.”
Evaluating the Romney campaign
The Republican campaign may not have generated as broad a support base but has a loyal following. According to Chiglinsky, “What works for the Republican campaign is that they have a much energized loyal base of support. Especially with evangelical voters, there is a very strong sense of voting commitment. Even during the midterm elections, when the voter turnout across the board is lower, it is usually the older more conservative parts of the population that turn out to vote.
Also highlighting their unified front across party differences, Chiglinsky continues, “The Republicans have been very good about falling into line and pushing ahead for Mitt Romney even if he may not be the type of candidate that many on the right would have supported.” Not everyone agrees entirely though. According to Kantor, “I think there are moments where the base of the Republican Party seems a little less inspired and less willing to go out there and fight as hard.” Goldsmith points out, “What has been clear to me watching this is that the Republican Party is not excited about Romney. The conservatives haven’t rallied behind Romney and I think the campaign has failed to present a really inspiring message.”
A Democrat campaigner himself, Goldsmith does, however, give some credit to the Romney campaign stating, “I do think they have been pretty disciplined on the message side, without being pulled into too many side debates.” Kantor points out, “The Romney campaign is tying into the disconnect of voters who don’t feel like the economy is working for them and are frustrated that the first to get saved from the economic collapse were the big banks.”
Other aspects of the message of the Romney campaign have run into trouble. Chiglinsky elaborates, “I think a very difficult gap is growing between the Republican base and the general electorate. A lot of the positions that the right has pushed and Romney has vocally supported are not very popular with the general population. The most damaging stand that Mitt Romney has taken is on the auto bailout specifically in Ohio, which is major swing state in this election. Supporting a Laissez-faire economics ideology to take a vocal stand against the auto bailout has been really tough for Romney to pivot in the general elections and convince voters in Ohio who are in tough economic conditions.”
Another damaging position has been the Republican Party’s harsh stance on immigration, which given the growing population of Hispanic voters in the US, makes it very hard to bridge the divide going from the primaries into the general election. Blanco cautions, “Romney needs to be careful because he is essentially writing off Hispanics, although he has tried to moderate his stand a little bit in the debates. The Republican message in general for Hispanics was quite extreme, particularly during the primaries.” Adds Kantor, “I also think the Right miscalculated the anger that was generated in this election after their attempt to stifle the vote for people of color by changing voter registration laws. I wonder how that plays out, especially in Ohio and Florida.”
On the fundraising front though, most panelists agree that the Romney campaign has done a good job at raising a huge amount of resources. Blanco puts this in perspective by comparing with the John McCain campaign of 2008, “In 2008, based on what I observed in Nevada, the Obama campaign outspent the McCain Campaign everywhere — there were far more advertisements, paid employees, etc. But the Romney campaign has clearly raised a lot of money creating much more of a level playing field and maybe even tilting it in their favor slightly.”
Despite resources, however, the ground game of the Romney campaign has not been strong enough. Blanco reiterates, “Although I am not on the ground anymore, from what I have read, it appears that the Romney campaign still does not have the same level of infrastructure and ground game as the Obama campaign.” This is likely to prove a huge disadvantage to the Romney campaign in the weeks before Election Day which require intense involvement of volunteers for get-out-the-vote activities.
Jumphead: Incumbency advantage for Obama expected
Barring any major events in the week before elections, the panel mostly anticipates re-election for President Obama. As Chiglinsky explains, “The President is very likely to be re-elected, not only because the incumbent usually wins in American elections, but also because his challenger has failed to present a coherent alternative.”
Goldsmith points out, “The election really is a referendum on the President. It comes down to what people think of Obama, and I think the country is really polarized.” Kantor agrees, “I think this election, more than any other before, has such a clear difference in values between people who believe the government is there to help and those who believe the government just needs to get out of the way and disappear on everything but national security. That is why to me it is so amazing to know that there are still undecided voters out there.”
The debate does boil down to what might happen in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, which, as Chiglinksy puts it, “is such a small part of the electorate in American elections that is actually open to being persuaded.” Kantor reflects, “Obama’s advantage in the ground game in the swing states is going to be meaningful. I think that he has turned his fundraising numbers around and has his base motivated.”
“It is going to be very close,” adds Blanco, “but the strong ground game and infrastructure is going to carry Obama through. The campaigns do have an impact, but they both have spent so much money on advertisements that the basic difference is going to be ground game and structure.”
*The interviewees selected were the first five who responded to an email request for an interview and are not representative of the student body; for instance, the perspective from female campaign workers is absent.