Lessons from the Obama campaign - Chit Asis


Posted at Feb 19 2009 03:46 PM | Updated as of Feb 20 2009 12:02 AM

From February 1 to 6, Mr. Joe Hansen, Campaign Strategist/Consultant of the Democratic Party of the United States and a veteran campaign manager and electoral expert in the US for 25 years, conducted a series of lectures for the Liberal Party family. He spoke before the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, progressive Civil Society Leaders, Liberal Party leaders local elected officials  and organizers.

The forums where sponsored by the National Institute for Policy Studies (NIPS), the think-tank of the Liberal Party, with support from the Freidrich Naumann Foundation. As a Member of the of NIPS, and former Director General of the Liberal Party and currently a member of the Re-elect Senator Drilon Campaign Team, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to a number of Hansen’s presentations. The discussions in each of the forums were very rich and I hope that this humble material will continue to stimulate the conversations in the Party and draw more lessons and insights from the Obama experience.

The Context

On the outset, it must be stated that the US is the model of democracy in the world. It is not a perfect democracy, yet it is the acknowledged leader of the free world. As such, its Constitution and laws provide mechanisms to ensure that its citizens are able to exercise their democratic right to vote in an open, free and orderly manner.

The US has a presidential form of government with a two-party system. The Republican Party had as presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, and has produced two-termer former President George W. Bush. The Democratic Party is now in power with President Barrack Obama. It had former Presidents, the late John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and, more recently, Bill Clinton.

The US elections start with each party undertaking an elaborate nomination process for their presidential and vice presidential candidates in what is known as the “ primaries” where the electoral votes determine the nominees which are affirmed by the party national conventions. Thus, the campaign for the presidency actually starts with the primaries for the nomination within each party.

Needless to say, the impact of the elections in the US to the world, specially to Asia and the Philippines, is overwhelming as it is the most powerful country in the world from which policies and conditions affecting the lives of nations emanates. Political analysts and scientists from all over the world study the elections in the US in order to gather lessons and experiences on how to improve the process and have better democracies.

Asian democracies are more complex, however. In Burma the democratically elected leaders in 1992 are in prison, others are in exile. In Cambodia, the party in power has almost absolute power by centralizing the functions of government in the hands of the majority without any power shared to the minority parties and leaders. In Singapore despite its economic success, it has laws that prohibit more than four persons to assemble at a given location. In Thailand, regime changes take place every so often that it is more difficult to predict the political stability of Thailand.

In the Philippines, where People Power was born and thereafter elections have been held regularly, the elections are fraud-ridden, the government is plagued with corruption and the quality of life for every Filipino is a distant dream.

Elections, however, continue to be the people’s main vehicle for freedom and democracy. This is the reality that challenges Asian political parties and democracies to take a deeper look into the Obama campaign and draw lessons and parallels for their individual conditions and applications. 

The Obama campaign and success was defined as:

1. Not a campaign but a movement

As the world’s show window of mass protests, the Philippines toppled the dictator, former President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, in what was known as the EDSA I People Power Revolution. The assassination of former Senator Benigno Aquino, fondly called “Ninoy,” the known arch-rival of Marcos, did not help suppress the national discontent but rather galvanized the anger of the people, rich or  poor, urban or rural. The Filipino people, tired of the Marcos mis-governance, hence, the battle cry “Sobra na, tama na, palitan na!” was most appropriate. The people Power Revolution installed the widow of Ninoy, Corazon Conjuangco Aquino, as the new president.

That millions of people trooped to the streets to protest the cheating  that Marcos did to unseat  Corazon Aquino was a reflection of the people’s movement. I remember that for a number of months, after Ninoy’s assassination on August 21, 1983, until EDSA I in February 1986, the Filipino people were one, the support was spontaneous. As we marched in the streets, onlookers would greet us with smiles, offer water and food, and words of encouragement.

Joe Hansen explained that there was “an antipathy for Bush and a yearning for change,” and that the Obama campaign was more of a support for “an against Bush campaign, rather than one for Obama.”

Indeed not only did the American people express their dissatisfaction with Bush but the sentiment was so strong it generated massive individual and organized support for Obama. Obama represented “Change” as against the status quo of Bush as represented by McCain, known as “more of the same.” The unpopularity of Bush was  world-wide. In an article, Time Magazine last year ran a story showing that world opinion favoured Obama, but  it was not  certain if the American people would elect Obama.

Asian countries have had their share of movements. Again in Burma the NCUB has been struggling  in and out of Burma for 20 years. Their leader  Dao Aung San Suu Kyi is still in house arrest. In Camboadia, the Sam Raysin Party, born out of years of political repression, continues to fight the cause of democracy.

Therefore, Asian countries have the capacity to develop and evolve political parties and campaigns into political movements for elections. What we need to learn is how citizens’ movements can be mobilized and organized as political party movements the objective of which is to elect credible and worthy leaders that will carry the people’s reform agenda and ensure good governance.
In the Philippines, the party-list system is one way by which citizens’ movements were transformed into political parties. Examples are Akbayan, Bayan, Garbiella and others. Yet these party-list groups have limited capacities and reach in sustaining political parties acting as mass movement, and vise versa.

2. An inspiring leader that is able to capture the aspirations of the people

Joe Hansen said another big factor in the US was: they had a “perfect candidate.” Although he qualified, that Obama was not too perfect as a presidential candidate since most Americans would have preferred a “  white” American. The prospect of Obama becoming the first black president created an anticipation and excitement all over the US and around the world, for who would think of a black American president?

Benjamin Pimentel in his book, Pareng Obama tells us of the plight of Asian Americans and African Americas in the US, and helps us understand the meaning of “Hope” and “Change” that ethnic minorities expect from Obama. Given that today, next to the whites, the African Americans  are preferred over the Asian Americans,  Pimentel says  he doesn’t expect much change under Obama.

Yet, the support from the minorities was huge. The Filipino veterans cast their support wholeheartedly with Obama and, finally, after 54 years the Filipino veterans will get what they deserve. News reports are that Obama, through Sen. Daniel Inouye, has included $198 million for  the veterans in his stimulus package which will grant Filipino Veterans residing in the US about $15,000 and those in the Philippines $12,000, Mabuhay si Barack Obama!

But inspiring leadership is not only delivering on your promise; it is connecting with the people. A genuine feeling of concern and understanding the plight of the poor. This is why Erap still enjoys 34 percent of the D and E class.

But Inspiring leadership cannot be packaged, it is born out of one’s performance, it is merit based, not merely charismatic. An inspiring leader is one who captures the aspirations of the majority of the people because they believe, with conviction, that this leader can do something. “May magagawa, kayang gawin [Can do something, will do something to change things.]”

In the current spread of probable presidential candidates in the Philippines, who can be an Obama? I think the last Obama the Philippines had was Ninoy Aquino.

3. An organizational campaign creed: Respect, Empower, Include

Joe Hansen proudly asserts that the Obama campaign was the best ever campaign in  his 25 years as a political-campaign manager and consultant. Joe Hansen, 47, is a Political Science graduate at Iowa University. He started as a volunteer at the Democratic HQ in Iowa and moved up in various capacities having handled several senatorial and congressional campaigns. He was one of the main direct-mail directors of the Obama campaign.

Joe tells us that in the Obama campaign the creed—and, I say, organizational philosophy—was one of respect, empowerment and inclusiveness. Of the Obama campaign manager, David Pluff, Joe  Hansen says, “[He] enjoyed the trust and confidence of Barrack Obama and his decisions and directives were not questioned.... There were  absolutely no leaks or unnamed sources.”

Hansen further says: “The respect for each one of the 500 HQ Chicago staff was there.” A volunteer, regardless of age and qualifications, was given a task and responsibility, his and her talents and contributions where recognized.

Obama set the parameters and tone of the campaign and allowed his team to execute it. Joe Hansen relays a story in the Chicago HQ when one staff member made a nasty open remark against Hillary. Obama cancelled his schedule and flew to Chicago to meet his staff. His message, Joe says, was: “There is a line on what we do and do not do. Do not get near that line. I do not want to win without honor and respect.”

Respect is indeed a major ingredient in any organization. But respect can only be given together with trust. Trust  is the basis of any  relation. Hence, politicians and candidates are overly cautious in the choice of their campaign staff and managers. A turn-over of staff and political officers normally  takes place when the staff or political officers bridges the trusts or when the staff looses trust and respect on his or her principal.

In the Philippines, educational attainment is given more importance in the selection of political officers than experience and networking. Recent practices show that professional managers have become more important, but they work in tandem with the operators and the experienced politicians in the field. Politicians have come to realize that  their professional staff are necessary in view of the changing political technology and environment. On the other hand, political campaign an election experts know very well that in Asian countries the clan leaders or political community leaders, are the key in winning elections. They say that elections are still decided by “local” leaders.

With respect comes the flexibility to allow the individual creativity and potential of supporters and volunteers. In fact, this promotes new forms of campaign methods and approaches.
Hence, the Obama campaign was able to empower the campaign teams by allowing more creativity and approaches. They work in the “comfort of their homes, but each volunteer or campaigner was monitored by a team leader. Joe Hansen admits that these costs some risks, but it helped bring out the best in each one.

Joe Hansen was part of a high-energy team with people serving from an average of eight to 10 hours a day. Each staff or volunteer had a task and their input was valued and acknowledged. I can only surmise that in the Obama HQ there was an atmosphere of freedom of expression not only of ideas but of creativity, a feeling of “belongingness and, therefore, ‘ownership’ of the campaign.”
This feeling and emotion is very Asian. The spirit of “helping” one another and solidarity of purpose which easily creates unity is imbibed in Asian cultures. But what needs to be worked on are another important value: respect and loyalty with almost blind obedience to the leaders and elders. In this context, campaigns in Asia will have to find a more liberal atmosphere and approaches.

4.  A hybrid organization: Democratic Party structure and the Campaign for Change [CFC]

Joe Hansen tells us that the organizing work for the Obama campaign started two years ago. Much of the organization was to build the party at the grassroots level utilizing the organizational principles of Saul Alinski. Being a community organizer, Obama understood what grassroots organizing can do. However, faced with the rigid political party structures in several localities, the party leaders tried to circumvent these structures by setting up “parallel” organizations known as the Campaign for Change [CFC]. The CFC was composed of any one—not necessarily a Democrat or party leader—who wanted to support and help campaign for Obama. It was open to all. Thus, the hybrid of the party organization and CFC was born.

The Obama campaign created the reverse of a top to bottom structure by allowing a flat but extensive organizational structure with key leaders. In the CFC interest groups and new constituencies where taken into the campaign. There was coordination and cooperation between party structures, although not always easy. However during the general elections, the party was placed at the disposal of the Obama team.

The CFC became a “catch all” organization, Meaning, all those who wanted to support, help and organize for Obama could come in and contribute their talents and work. Besides the traditional party organizations like the labor groups, women, senior citizens and youth, the CFC had other organizations like the minority groups, gay and lesbians and other issues and advocacy-based groups. Civil society groups played a key role in the CFC’s.

The hybrid experiment of Obama is not unique. In the Philippines because of the weakness of political party organizing, candidates undertake the organization of what is called the “parallel” organizations that usually include relatives and friends, classmates, sports and drinking buddies to make up one’s organization. Using the “spider approach,” politicians create this machinery so that a network of supporters and campaigners can undertake the job of campaigning. In local campaigns, the organization is more extensive as the structure includes even the precinct watchers. During the Estrada presidency, stories of the power of the “midnight Cabinet” abound. Often, the decision of the official Cabinet where reversed by the “midnight Cabinet.”

What is significant is the synergy that the party and the CFC projected, and the inclusiveness of each organization. From experience I know that it takes an organizational genius to make the conflicting interests and personalities in each structure to come together and make the campaign work. Cognizant of the fact that each has a critical role in the campaign, the campaign team ensures that each one is able to accomplish his or her tasks. One key factor, it seems, was the flexible organizational relationship that was allowed. The nonparty members were able to become part of the campaign without necessarily becoming a member and not made to feel alienated.

5.  Traditional and new media:  Smart use of technology

The traditional media, television, radio and print was still the main form of campaign. Hansen estimates that this made up some 60 percent of the total communications part. He suggests that we use the local media to the maximum. In fact, we must “feed the beast” to get our message across. Posters and signboards have become less and less useful as people watch more TV.

One major success factor in the Obama campaign was the smart use of information technology. They had no less than 1,800 Obama videos on YouTube.com with approximately 100 million hits. The owner of Facebook took a leave to help. Thirty volunteers managed and maintained Obama’s Web site and blog with several links. They gathered about 13 million email addresses. They had internet advertising and bought ads in popular games, such as the Grand Theft Auto 4. Voters could get on-line information about registration, polling and voting. The Vote for Change.com site gave information on events and discussions on Obama’s advocacies and policy discussions.

Phone-smart-phone campaign was done by volunteers in their homes, and a neighbor-to-neighbor tool kit of campaign information was available in the internet for all to avail themselves of. Everything and anything that could be done to get people interested in the elections and in Obama was made. The IT campaign was efficient and effective with the least cost. Hansen says that the white population uses emails while the blacks (and I think and Asian-Americans) use SMS.

In Asia, where a large segment of the population is rural and without  electricity, Internet is a far cry. Thus, traditional media is still the main form of campaign. In urban areas, the lessons of the new media campaign has become relevant.  It takes creative ways of inventing and promoting the use of these technologies. What is more useful in Asia and the Philippines is the SMS; it is cheap, fast and available to a large segment of the population, rich and poor, urban and rural.

6. Message and communications: Not about Obama; about you

The Obama message, “A change we can believe in,” Hansen says, was the product of extensive research  and tests. It tried to capture the mood and aspirations of the American people. Thus, it was about the people, not about Obama. What Obama did was to inspire that the change can be done, with his, “Yes, we can” phrase.

There was discipline in the communications program. Only one message was framed at the HQ and the locals got it out in as many ways as possible. The weekly and daily messages were prepared from the national message based on the central frame. There were “Talkers” or “talking heads” authorized speakers for Obama. Letters were sent to the editors and the public at large. Bloggers and blogs were inundated with Obama position papers, opinions and views. Decentralization was allowed at the local offices through the local press people.

Politics is about human choices, thus, the human stories about the people became the main stories of the Obama speeches and articles. The strategy was not  a negative campaign, but a contrast, not more of the  same, but what is different.

Candidates find it hard to develop a message and a brand because much is packaged from a thin material and usually the material is the candidate himself. Another difficulty is what “appeals and connects” with the majority of the voters. Once a contrast is made it becomes personal, hence negative and ugly. A positive campaign would have a message on more of the solutions rather than the problem; more of what can be done, not what’s wrong; what the candidate values and aspires for, and how they become the same aspirations and values of the voters.

7. Political mapping and research: the hard count, the hard facts

Joe Hansen tells us that the campaign was based on hard facts and figures. The voters list was available to the volunteers to identify those that had registered and those who had not. They knew the demographics. They had weekly reports of surveys and polls. Analysis were made, but never was there any leak to the press. During the primaries, the electoral vote count  was guarded at all times.

The data base helps identify voters, donors and, thereafter, the specific targets for campaigning. Polling helps the campaign team learn what people say about the candidate and a variety of feedback on the campaign. It is important to know where the voters are, who they are, what are their preferences. These information helps a candidate target the voters better.

Political research includes research not only of electoral data but on issues and on the life of the candidate and opponents. Joe Hansen says that since Obama was virtually unknown two years ago, the research team had to know every single aspect of his life.

Political mapping in the Philippines is a science not yet fully appreciated by politicians. However, it has been in use in several informal levels as guides to political decision by several leaders. There are several variables that affect the results of elections in Asian countries. The use of the science of surveys and political mapping has not yet been proven to be 100 percent accurate.

Cheating, change of electoral information and data manipulation render the science inaccurate and unreliable in some instances. Nevertheless it is imperative that political campaigns are drawn from scientific data and surveys in order to make them more effective and cost efficient.   Seasoned political practitioners know by heart the names of the political and clan leaders in each province and city. They know their history, intermarriages and capacities to deliver votes in each election. They can count their gains and losses if and when the leaders would support them or not.

8. Mobilizing the youth vote: Volunteers without age

Joe Hansen was emphatic to dispel the media myth that the 2008 elections was dominated by the youth vote. The statistics show, he says that the youth participation in the 2008 elections was a mere 1 percent increase than in 2004. What is significant, he says, is that Obama got 65 percent of the total youth vote in the elections. The youth was visible in the Obama campaign as the average volunteer in the campaign was about age 23. They played a key role in mobilizing the youth to register and vote, man computers and do all sorts of odd jobs.

Obama inspired the youth so much that his face and signs were all over different merchandise through rock bands, posters, trinkets and what not. Obama recognized the difference of the youth culture and was able to inspire their participation by appealing to their higher sense of idealism and doing something worthwhile. Because of their philosophy of inclusiveness, the youth volunteers were easily assimilated into the campaign. The volunteers in the Obama campaign were without age. In the lateral organization of the CFC, young and old worked together.

In many Asian countries the youth vote is crucial as the youth compose at least 50 percent of the voting population. However, it is getting the youth interested in elections that matters, especially the rural youth. In the Philippines, the Samahang Kabataan (SK) is a system of youth representation in every legislative body of the local government. The youth representative is elected by the youth in each locality for a fixed  term. Unfortunately, the system has been corrupted by the intervention of the elder political leaders by fielding their sons and daughters or favoured candidates.

Civil society groups and activists have organized youth groups, but their participation in elections is still low. Joe Hansen suggests that in organizing the youth, we must “pay attention” to what they say; they are a different population that gets information from their global Internet peers. The youth, he further says, is heavy in social networking and work through their peers.

9. Fund-raising: IT based is fast and reliable

Fund-raising through the Internet is not prohibited in the US. “There was a large number of e-mail contacts of about 13 million where  tapped to help raise the funds for the campaign. Small $5 to $20 dollars per month sent to the campaign funds through the CFC or the Democratic Party was undertaken. All the donations were reported and accounted for as provided by law.

In the US the government provides for financial assistance to the political parties and candidates but in the case of Obama, no fund or assistance was needed.

Fundraising in Asian countries vary from country to country. Some countries enjoy government subsidies like Taiwan. Most do not like the Philippines, Cambodia and Burma. The parties and candidates’ in these countries are left to fend for themselves. Fund-raising is a major obstacle in the development of political parties. In some cases it leads to corrupt practices by compromising the independence of the political party and its leaders who become beholden to the donors and supporters.

 Public fundraising is also regulated in several countries where the electoral laws and systems prescribe the forms and limits of public fundraisings. Hence the richer parties with bigger membership and resources have better chances of winning in elections than smaller, less-funded parties, which are normally the opposition parties. This creates and imbalance of opportunities and playing field.

10. Know the rules

Joe Hansen reminds us of the importance of knowing the rules at all times. He compared the Hillary primary campaign with that of Obama. He explains that Hillary Clinton was running the primaries like a national campaign concentrating on the popular vote, while Obama was focused on the state-by-state electoral vote.

These are the 10 lessons I have learned from the presentations of Mr. Joe Hansen, a true expert and political practitioner. I hope that with his insights and  sharing we can improve the way we run elections in our countries, especially the Philippines. Truly each country is unique and the situation will vary but these 10 lessons can come handy. 

Chit Asis is currently an Independent Political Consultant, former Director General of the Liberal Party, Board Member of the National Campaign Team. For comments email at Chit [email protected]