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November 8, 2008

Anatomy of a Great Campaign

by at 10:15 am.

As many of you know (ad infinitum), I have done some work in support of a few candidates this cycle, and in particular, for Jen Benson (Representative-Elect, 37th Middlesex) and Obama in NH. Now it is time to analyze the experience and share some thoughts I had in doing it.

Jen was running against a very negative candidate, who was willing to lie and distort her record and her positions, not only in his own literature (some of which he didn’t bother to even label as from him, due to some loophole), but also in the local media. Though this seat was previously held by a progressive Dem, whose values Jen shares, it was by no means a slam dunk that she would win this election. There are several small towns in the district, many of which go Republican as much as Democrat.

I arrived a week and a half before Election Day to do my afternoon of phone banking for Jen, as promised, and took up a packet or two of Unenrolled in Harvard, MA. I didn’t say it then (for “stategery” reasons), but I felt really good about Jen’s chances after that day, both from the results of the phone bank and from watching her campaign in action.

First, the phone numbers in the packet were about as good as I’d ever seen. Maybe it’s a town with less transient residents than our area, but I scarcely got a bad number all day. So that is lesson #1 - get the best phone/address lists you can possibly get. It wastes less time for your volunteers, for one. Secondarily, I didn’t find a single supporter for Kurt Hayes the whole time (and no one else there that day did either) and plenty for Jen. So that made me feel pretty optimistic.

But the real reason I am writing this post is the campaign I witnessed on Election Day itself. That day, I met campaign manager Mike Mackin, who was running the show from Benson HQ. I found out that he was something of a rookie in the position; but I can tell you, he certainly was not acting like one.

The campaign had a strategy that ran like a textbook grassroots program: by the time election day had rolled around, they had canvass- and phone-banked-ID’ed your typical likely Dem voters, your Unenrolled, and even, the so-called “Lazy Dems” - the infrequent registered voters. Now, the Benson campaign had the fortune of landing in a presidential year, when more voters typically show up, as well as in Obama’s year, when turnout reached record levels, even in our “safe Obama state.” I suspect Jen did get a percentage point or two more because of this effect (though she still would have handily won). However, that does not mean that this campaign wasn’t prepared for any turnout scenario.

What struck me was that they had, along with GOTV calls and visibility outside the polls, observers at every polling place checking off the voters who had come in (which is allowed). The plan was that they would compile a list of the Benson-ID’ed voters by early afternoon who had not yet voted and send out a squad of canvassers knock on the doors of these supporters, asking them personally to come out and vote. I myself was on the list of volunteers scheduled to canvass. Now, by happenstance and a good year for Dems, so many of those people had come out to vote that the afternoon canvass became unnecessary. But the volunteer canvassers were lined up to do their jobs should they be needed.

I had a similar experience with the Obama campaign in NH - this was an expert campaign in an atmosphere that can, and often is, very chaotic. They too ran a completely traditional, grassroots campaign where boots on the ground matter more than money in the bank (though money helps hire organizers). They had the right emphasis on the former, such that the latter (the small donors) snowballed into record amounts of donors and donations.

It was evident to me from both my experiences with the Benson campaign and the Obama NH operation that they had planned and executed a great grassroots strategy to get out the vote. And in both cases, this was coupled with a positive campaign that just kept plugging along with its message no matter what the Hayes or McCain campaigns barfed up; you can see why Jen did so well in the 37th Middlesex, and Obama in the electoral college. If our goal as progressive Democrats is to elect more and better Democrats, we also want more and better campaigns. To my eye, that’s exactly what we got with Jen Benson and Obama, and I can sincerely say they both earned their wins last Tuesday.

Last of all, I want to say congratulations to Jen Benson and to Mike Mackin. They should be really proud of the campaign they waged. (And they probably will sleep for a week!)

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