The number games

The Obama campaign tirelessly raised money, recruited volunteers and set number quotas in language that seemed to have been torn straight from a Bain consulting manual.

Casey Selwyn
24 November 2012

The US Presidential race of 2012 was a clear victory for those who like numbers. In fact, it might seem in retrospect that numbers were all that ever mattered. Look, for example, at blogger-phenomenon Nate Silver’s perfect prediction of electoral results, proving the imperviousness of statistics to media hysteria; or see the staggering quotient of unlikely voters Barack Obama’s team was able to turn out despite predictions to the contrary.

During the race, each candidate tirelessly pointed to statistics trying to prove his case, or disprove the other’s. The Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment numbers were doctored and suspect, Republicans would shout; the Republicans were misrepresenting projected Medicare budget cuts, Democrats would counter. More than once, I thought to myself that there should be a public service announcement to the American people, reminding them that statistics are essentially meaningless out of context.

But I don’t think such a suggestion would win me a campaign job any time soon: having spent two weeks in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the self-proclaimed ‘tip of the spear’ of the Obama campaign, I got a taste of the contradictions of the message of the campaign, its strategic vision, and the facts on the ground. The issues I found problematic are in many ways indicative of what seems to be broadly wrong with the US domestic political scene: we focus on numbers instead of issues, resulting in the prioritization of calculation over change, and of reelection over reform.

The campaign, however, narrates its own inspiring story, and it is admittedly one that part of me still believes. It is of David and Goliath, of grassroots organizing versus corporate money, and of being on the right side of history. The final scene of this particular movie involves Karl Rove sitting in his ivory tower, about to swallow hemlock as Super PAC thugs knock down his door to demand the victory they paid for. It inspired people like myself to trek to rainy, cold Cleveland from places like New York, California, Texas, and even the Netherlands and Canada. This story does not narrate numbers, but rather sends a message those of us on the left are desperate to hear. Its key words are enfranchisement, unity, diversity, purpose, progress and hope.

In certain ways, this message is an honest one. Standing in a room of hundreds of people in East Cleveland watching the election returns, a man addressed the audience – widely representative of age, race, gender, ethnicity and creed – saying, ‘A democratic nation is representative of all the peoples. If you don’t think this is a democratic process, everybody take a look around at your neighbors and tell me what you see!’ Whenever I felt demoralized after a particularly freezing shift of canvassing, I needed only to talk to one of the deeply committed community volunteers, ranging from a twelve year-old aspiring Supreme Court justice to a seventy-year old grandmother walking for hours in snow pants, to remember why I was there. The moments throughout the campaign that felt most inspiring involved galvanizing a community that was variously disenfranchised, left behind, and apathetic. At these times, it felt like there was a larger project we were all a part of, and that there was justice in the fact that those people abandoned by society were deciding its fate with their ballots. The ecstatic shrieks in the room upon the announcement of Obama’s win on November 6 seemed to reaffirm that this was the only story of the campaign, and Obama’s tearful thank you to his team of organizers in Chicago sent a collective shiver down the backbones of volunteers that had paved the path to victory. It was all worth it.

But of course, that isn’t the whole story.  The story begins, rather, with the severe disappointment that many felt following Obama’s first term in office. One can look to any number of explanations for his record – whether it was the fault of a Republican Congress, whether Obama promised too much, whether the people inferred too much from his promises – but its shortcomings are a reality. This reality nearly prompted me to skip my trip to Ohio altogether, and I am sure it was behind one volunteer’s question to me on the bus ride over: ‘Do you really see any difference between the two candidates?’ Disappointment seemed to contribute to the serious and somewhat resigned atmosphere of the campaign, so different from the euphoric energy of 2008.

On the streets of East Cleveland, there was certainly support for Obama, but there was also a high level of apathy. Our efforts at recruiting voters and volunteers were mocked by the rows of vacant houses lining the streets, and by the attitudes of those who felt left behind by a candidate who had promised them something better. It was here that the numbers game mattered most. Obama’s team needed to Get Out the Vote, and it needed its effort to be so large and widespread that even a small percentage of the consequent turnout would be able to tip the election. For this reason, the campaign tirelessly raised money, recruited volunteers and set number quotas in language that seemed to have been torn straight from a Bain consulting manual.

The campaign’s tactic of community-based organizing and recruitment was laudable, and in many ways brilliant. It aimed to engage the community and ensure that neighbors convinced their own neighbors of the importance and relevance of voting. But the attempts to measure productivity and the emphasis on numbers meant that those at the top of the chain of command demanded numbers from those below them, who demanded numbers from those below them, and so on down the line until the pressure was felt among volunteers to perform to a quantified standard rather than to rally around a cause.

Organizers became possessive and competitive over their volunteers, at times focusing more on their own numbers than the overall objective. As a byproduct of this jockeying, volunteers ended up waiting around to be told what to do, feeling awkward if they attempted to switch teams to do something more useful. I met more than one disgruntled volunteer, angry at having given up time and money to join the campaign, only to wait for hours before being dispensed on duty. A friend summed it up most accurately when I asked him if he thought the campaign knew what it was doing. ‘They know exactly what they’re doing,’ he replied. ‘They know that if you get enough people, the job will get done, even if it means alienating some of the volunteers. It’s just about numbers. But I do think they’ll have some problems recruiting people the next time around.’

All of this is not to say that the numbers game is the wrong one to be playing. On the contrary, it certainly seems to have worked for the Obama team, and despite my issues with certain elements of my experience I would do it again in a heartbeat. But the larger point is that it isn’t always just about the win. If the point is also to reform politics, to engage and enfranchise a population, and to guide leadership towards addressing issues such as climate change that are pressing but not ‘vote winners’, numbers cannot be the only thing that matter. Passion is not contrived, but felt, and while standing in a room on the eve of victory made everything seem worth it, that type of victory is not always within reach. For this reason, those involved at every level need to remember that it is about a cause. And those causes are still worth fighting for, even when the numbers swing the other way.

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