ELECTIONS are the lifeblood of democracy. Over the centuries, electioneering has become an art, being continually worked on in Western democracies with each poll.
Nowhere is this more advanced than in the United States, where the last two election campaigns run by President Barack Obama are being combed for lessons.
In the recently concluded US election, the Obama campaign further refined its grass-roots connection and mobilisation model called ‘the ground game’. This involved reaching out to millions of grass-roots voters by identifying and registering them and getting them to come out and vote on election day. Key to this ground game strategy was Jim Messina, Obama’s White House staffer, who was assisted by Jeremy Bird, a practitioner of the community organisation model.
This duo shares with President Obama a deep belief in community organisation and mobilisation as the central tenet of electoral politics. (Obama himself rose in politics thanks to his early career as a community organiser.) This approach to electoral politics has acquired salience against the backdrop of voting blocs of both mainstream US parties, which are tied and fixed, leaving a large pool of 38 per cent (up from 29 per cent in 1990) undecided or independent voters, according to the Pew Research Centre.
In the high-stakes election game, the Obama campaign strategy rested on identifying these independents and persuading them in the Democratic direction as well as encouraging solid Democratic voters to turn out and vote on election day. This they did by following a two-track approach: the Obama campaign concentrated on mobilising and deploying a massive paid field force in the key swing states as opposed to the Republican strategy of concentrating on buying media time and unleashing political attack ads. This field force was supplemented with massive data on each voter generated by a highly sophisticated data-gathering and analysis operation in the campaign office.
The field force worked in the old-fashioned way by approaching voters, making personal phone calls and visiting community venues such as barber shops. (Hairdressers are key to community gossip and intelligence, as beautifully illustrated in one of Orhan Pamuk’s essays.)
This advanced level of voter micro-targeting by using traditional methods of community organisation and generating and combing multiple data-sets on the voting population carried the day for Obama in a tightly fought election.
More importantly, the Obama campaign also made full use of social media, used by 39 per cent of Americans, as a vehicle for serious political discussion. As a result, the Obama campaign was highly visible on social media and beat the Republicans on this front. Obama, of course, was helped in all this by the incumbency factor which redounded to his advantage via the retention of his old team and aggressive fundraising which evenly matched the Republican’s war chest.
Though the political system in Pakistan is different from the one in the US and a greater number of political parties contest the elections here, and technology is far advanced in the US, some lessons, applicable to Pakistan, can be drawn from the Obama campaign.
Firstly, no election campaign can succeed without forging a genuine connection and sustained interaction with voters. The Obama campaign has clearly shown this. This places additional responsibility on political parties to increase engagement with voters with a view not only to entrench wobbly democracy but also to change its character and content.
Sadly, this has not happened so far, as evidenced by Pakistani political parties’ lukewarm engagement with voters in terms of voter registration and lack of electoral research to build up a general picture of the electorate with a view to improving policies and the content of democracy. When our parties begin to do this, there is a greater likelihood of crafting better policies to meet voters’ varied expectations.
Until now, political parties have worked through local bigwigs and fixers to deliver bloc votes. Clearly this has got to change and engagement with voters needs to be stepped up in order to mend the dangerous disconnect existing between the political class and the electorate. This assumes more significance as the next election is going to be tight. So the party reaching out to a greater number of voters and encouraging them to vote as well can emerge the winner on election day.
Secondly, the expert use of technology can produce electoral success and enduring democracy as proved by Obama’s campaign. This requires investment in, and commitment to, election-related research and gathering and analysing data-sets on voters with a view to accessing them. Thankfully, our voters’ list has been computerised, which gives an extra incentive to political parties to run data-driven election campaigns. Also, a computerised list can help prevent electoral fraud.
Thirdly, through adopting and learning from electoral practices such as the Obama campaign, political parties can learn how to break out of their traditional electoral shells and reach out to new voters with better, pro-people policies commanding nationwide appeal. This would also nudge the parties into preparing nationwide electoral bids rather than regional bids which seem to be the dominant approach at the moment.
The writer is an Islamabad-based development consultant and policy analyst.