The Listening Yank

It’s the day before the G20 Summit in London and Karin Robinson should be out on the streets, leading the pro-Obama rally she’s been promoting. Instead, she’s put her back out, so she’s confined to her flat, going a little stir crazy and watching news of the various demonstrations (mostly peaceful, but more anti than pro G20) online.

“There’s all these protesters and my question is: let’s say you got what you wanted? But do they have an agenda? My philosophy is to have very clear goals. If these protesters are trying to influence the [G20] meeting, they should have a lobby list. One of the signs I’ve seen says “Abolish Money”! Personally, from a ‘liking things to work well’ point of view, they need to know what they want.”

As a US citizen based in the UK, Karin knows all about agenda-setting. She worked as a regional field director on Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign between July and November last year. Her remit was to mobilse as many US Democratic voters as possible across the UK, Ireland, Scandinavia and South Africa.

Despite her London base, Karin was in daily contact with the campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.

“I was reporting back [to the US] on a daily basis,” she says. “And every day we’d get reviewed targets back. David Plouffe, the Campaign Manager, was looking at very detailed data.”

“There was a lot of pressure to reach targets, we were really working our tails off. But it would have been easy to miss the opportunity to capitalise on all those volunteers. There were stories that McCain volunteers were being sent home because the campaign wasn’t prepared for them.”

By contrast, the Obama Campaign was meticulously organised at every level:

“In some of our key states we had forty per cent of people having some kind of contact with the campaign. [The campaign organisers] made it clear from the start that they wanted an unprecedented level of contact – face to face contact – the ability to use social media to make that happen was a very clever exploitation.”

Karin goes on to describe how the campaign used sites such as Facebook and MeetUp as an adjunct to, and extension of, face-to-face contact.

“We were using [social networks] to find people and to communicate and to directly organise…Every single objective [was about] getting people offline. Every YouTube video would end with “Go volunteer, go give money, go do this!”. One of Obama’s signature endings for his stump speech, his generic campaign trail speech, was “So if you’ll work with me, come out and vote with me, we’ll do this!”. The whole tenor of the event was geared towards getting people out.”

This emphasis on calls to action was present at all levels of the campaign. Karin remembers the Democratic Nomination Convention which took place in a 75,000 seater stadium in Denver in August 2008:

“Under every seat was a piece of paper with a list of names. Before people came out and started doing speeches, the voter registration director asked everyone to take out their mobiles and call four people on their list. We wanted to send a signal at the highest possible level that this was a volunteer-led campaign.”

One famous revolutionary aspect of the Obama Campaign was the fact that it was the first in history to be majority-funded by small donations. By the end of the campaign, the official White House website was transformed from an authoritarian, text-heavy front page to a welcoming portal, a smiling Obama beaming from the top-right corner.

On Obama’s Change website, Google Moderator has been used to enable US citizens to vote up issues of importance to them (although the “Open For Questions” function raised eyebrows earlier this year when marijuana legalisation topped the poll). MyBarackObama continues as a thriving community, with the “Obama For America” campaign now rebranded as “Organising For America”. Obama’s Twitter stream, MySpace, Bebo and Facebook profiles all remain active.

Obama also has an offline way of getting a feel for what’s bothering people at a grassroots level. Every day, according to Karin, he asks for a selection of letters from the public to glance through: “He’s really concerned that once you become President you become detached from reality. He’s very serious about not loosing touch.”

And Karin adds that despite Obama being a great listener, sometimes our expectations of him run impossibly high:

“Obama really is listening to people but what you’ve got to remember is he’s not just listening to you. People sometimes mistake listening for acquiescence.”